Oscars Picks: How goes the kingdom in ‘The Favourite’?

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 2/5/19 2:40am

In light of the 91st Academy Awards coming up this month, a few of our film reviewers are looking at the Best Picture nominees to see what might be the best pick for the film industry’s most prestigious award. Today, Sebastian Wurzrainer looks at “The Favourite.”

“The Favourite” is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, who has recently gained a reputation for surrealist works like “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” At first glance, “The Favourite” might seem like an odd choice for Lanthimos’ sensibilities, given its period setting and storyline. Yet the final product is exactly what you might expect from a surrealist filmmaker taking on a fairly standard, if rather intriguing, costume drama screenplay.

The film takes place during the reign of sickly Queen Anne, circa 1708. Sarah Churchill, the Queen’s closest friend and occasional lover, has successfully amassed immense political power by taking advantage of Anne’s maladies and unstable mind, serving essentially as a de facto ruler. Yet Churchill’s power becomes increasingly precarious as she vigorously promotes Britain’s war with France, much to the displeasure of the Tory party. Enter Abigail Hill, Sarah’s cousin brought low by an infamous father. Shortly after her arrival at court, Sarah takes her cousin under her wing, giving Abigail easy access to the Queen. Soon Abigail gains favor with the frail monarch, maneuvering to push Sarah aside, all the while using the support of the Tories to her advantage. 

Here’s a blunt, overgeneralized, yet largely accurate statement: costume dramas are shockingly hard to pull off, especially in this day and age. At first glance, one might assume that this is because the stories and characters can so easily get buried beneath the costumes, make-up and sets. Yet such an assessment seems incomplete. After all, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Star Wars sequel trilogy are some of the most successful films in recent memory, and both employ extravagant mises-en-scène. What makes costume dramas any different? This may be pure speculation, but there seems to be a certain expectation that these films distance the audience from the characters. The set design, make-up and wardrobes don’t enhance audience engagement with the story; instead, they become historical barriers, markers of a time long since passed. The accuracy of these elements is ultimately secondary; they are a trope of the genre that must nonetheless be circumvented if the film is to stand out. Over the years, many filmmakers have tried to do just that with varying degrees of success. If you want to go back to the 1970s, Stanley Kubrick’s solution was to take the staid style of the costume drama to the extreme, transforming “Barry Lyndon” into a borderline satiric piece. More recently, the excellent “A Royal Affair” opted for a simpler but no less brilliant tactic: employing modern filmmaking techniques that feel more real and immediate. The film doesn’t dispose of absurd wigs or fancy dresses, but it makes clear that there are real human beings beneath them.

I mention all of this because “The Favourite” almost takes the lessons of “Barry Lyndon” and “A Royal Affair” to heart before discarding them entirely. As with “Barry Lyndon,” Lanthimos opts for a somewhat satiric approach to the drama in Queen Anne’s court. But whereas “Barry Lyndon” is lightly amusing, “The Favourite” revels in the surreal and the grotesque. Likewise, the film opts for modern filmmaking techniques, but takes them to the extreme. What was immersive in “A Royal Affair” becomes even more distancing in “The Favourite.” The most obvious example of this is the film’s constant use of a fisheye lens, an ultra-wide-angle lens that distorts the edges of the frame. One might initially be inclined to search for a narrative explanation for such an odd choice. After all, the use of such a wide-angle does strand the characters in the frame, emphasizing the gaping, empty spaces that surround them. However, the aforementioned distortions are too distracting, too obvious to be anything other than an authorial intervention on the part of Lanthimos. Such an intervention is the hallmark of an art film, and it is precisely what distinguishes “The Favourite” from “Barry Lyndon” or “A Royal Affair.” Like those two films, “The Favourite” clearly wants to do something different with the costume drama, but its approach is entirely its own. 

But does this approach have any true purpose? Auteurs of art cinema have a particular fondness for drawing attention to themselves within their own films. In response, audience members tend to gush about their brilliance as artists. Yet as often as not, such works are the product of pure hubris. Can the same be said for Lanthimos and “The Favourite”? Perhaps, but I’d like to suggest that his techniques — such as the fisheye lens — signal to the audience that the focus is not truly on the characters or the story. Rather, the film’s mise-en-scène transforms into this sort of observational visual tapestry. For instance, the frequent usage of close-ups doesn’t encourage audience identification. Instead, the actors’ faces become yet another component in the tapestry, yet another interplay of light, shadow, movement and color. All is visual for the sake of pure visuality. 

Such an unusual approach is by all means interesting. Nevertheless, part of me can’t help but wonder if this screenplay, what with its complex examination of gender, sexuality, power and politics, might have been better served by an approach that focused more on content and less on form. To be clear, none of this is to deride art cinema or a focus on form. These things have their place; if nothing else, they tend to ignite conversations — or an overwritten review for The Dartmouth. At the end of the day, though, some art films that value form over content are enjoyable both to watch and discuss, while others are only enjoyable once you start talking about them after the fact. For better or for worse, “The Favourite” falls into the latter category. For all its efforts to upend its genre, the film elicits much the same response while watching it as many other so-so costume dramas. It may be a fascinating film to talk about once you’ve left the theater, but if you want to be engaged, you may be wise to stick with the likes of “Barry Lyndon” and “A Royal Affair.” 

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