There are some years when choosing an Oscar favorite is like shopping for avocados in Alaska, it’s about choosing the less rotten one; luckily this year, the top two contenders are perfectly fresh, aesthetically delicious, and emotionally complex, they are Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite. The Favourite tells the story of Queen Anne at a point in her short reign (1702-1707) after she had lost her husband, 17 children, and the her Kingdom was at war. While the structure of the narrative is solid, that is, that it is framed by factual events and the veracious nature of her complicated relationship and love affair with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, the film does take liberties with the subject matter; but these liberties are by design, and smart, and help convey the feelings and the emotions that are masterfully controlled by the actresses. Queen Anne is played by Olivia Colman, who incidentally will replace Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth in Netflix’s season three of The Crown. Rachel Weisz plays Sarah Churchill, one of the most influential women in political history. Lady Sarah capitalized on her life-long friendship with the Queen to influence the political direction of the Kingdom. Emma Stone plays Abigail Hill, Sarah’s cousin, who becomes not only Lady Sarah’s political rival, but in the film is also a rival in love. All three actresses give Oscar-winning performances for sure, but Coleman is amazing as she delivers on the full spectrum of human emotion and on the genius of constructing the character of the Queen as someone who is deeply aware of the situation she has created and also entrenched in misery.
The script for The Favourite is truly brilliant not just in its outward propelling of a plot and character development but in the subtle layers of emotional complexity that Lanthimos builds, delicately one on top of the other. The script was a work in progress for almost a decade before the details fell into place. Like in Lanthimos’ 2016 film The Lobster, the focus is on a web of relationships, some deep, others new and promising. There is something very earnest about the entanglements of the three women that The Favourite will leave viewers with a heartache, an emotion that may be hard to swallow but is so integral to being human that its power is undeniable, especially if they have ever experienced flawed relationships full of love and imperfections that pivot and spiral out of control. Lanthimos shares Pedro Almodovar’s sensibility in writing and directing female actors, both directors write for women with total deference for their intellect, talent, flaws and virtues, and humanity—go figure. The power shifts in the film are messy in a way that makes viewer love and hate every character for different reasons. In the end it’s hard to know who “the favourite” really was, perhaps it was the Queen herself all along.
The question is, will The Favourite win best picture when it’s up against Roma that also received 10 nominations and is also brilliant and in some ways more easily defined? The film industry puts labels on films like “Comedy”, “Comedy-Drama”, “Biopic”, “Adventure”, etc. so that a viewer is armed with expectations and biases even before buying a ticket. The limiting genre labels, the lesbian content, and gender bending roles that The Favourite delivers are what makes it great and also what may work against it in its quest for the Best Picture Oscar, because it simply fit in the little label boxes. On the heels of The Favourite and Roma are Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman that shift the racism paradigm. Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star is Born are also contenders, and while these two are good, their popularity is not because they are great films, but because either they are about, or star musical greats. To add to the competiveness, Green Book and Vice are also contenders.
But, despite it all, The Favourite ought to be a favorite of viewers everywhere because Lanthimos pulls out all the stops and gives viewers things they didn’t expect, from the luscious sets and costumes that are beyond the pale and magnificent, to the use of fish-eye lenses and unexpected angles that bring the viewer to intimate closeness with the characters and with the director’s vantage point. Lanthimos creates Vermeer-like montages with wide angles draped in light that caresses inanimate objects and people alike so that scenes become eternal moments.
“The Favourite” is playing in major theater but will also play at:
Monday, February 4 at 5:30PM and
Tuesday, February 5 at 8:15 PM