Best Picture Countdown: “The Favourite”

The two posh period dramas of the year, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite and Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots, both focus on female royalty from a feminist perspective but do so in opposite ways. The former refreshingly reframes historical material while deconstructing the genre’s high-brow elitism — most period-pieces are suffused with snobbish dialogue. The latter, unfortunately, falls relatively flat. 

There was a time when Mary Queen of Scots might have cruised to major nominations because of its traditional, theater-inspired style, leaving Lanthimos’ absurdist film stranded on the outskirts of awards season. The Favourite is ultimately enticing “anti-Oscar bait” that may yet garner a win in at least one of the ten categories where it is nominated. Perhaps such an ambitious and atypical film also deserves mainstream recognition for its nuanced depiction of women and queer relationships. 

Lanthimos does not blatantly plaster the perfect, strong female character trope onto his film. Rather, he weaves together a fascinating narrative between three women: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman); Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz); and maid-turned-aristocrat Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) by slowly unmasking their unyielding hunger for power. They are unabashedly driven by their egos, desires, and feminine wiles — all the while remaining powerful and true to their real-life counterparts. Lanthimos has contrived a full-out lesbian battle that forces the audience to question their personal and political sympathies. 

Though self-indulgent at times with its overuse of a fish-eye lens, the cinematography accurately captures the cramped, suffocating atmosphere of the palace that Queen Anne can never escape. Lanthimos’ directing choices lend us an eye into Anne’s despair and decline. The Queen was expected to produce heirs and has had 17 pregnancies, but none of her children survive. She’s understandably ill-tempered, at first coming across as the film’s antagonist. Later in the film, it becomes clear that all three of these palace dwellers are ruthless in more ways than one. 

The Favourite is ultimately an absurdist comedy that subverts expectations. By its last shot, you may find the film difficult to analyze, as it forces one to think deeply about the oddities it presents. You probably won’t reach a single, comprehensible conclusion after viewing The Favourite, but the raw experience makes contemplating Lanthimos’ intentions as a director worthwhile. Oberlin students will most likely appreciate its brash, snarky humor and ridiculous interpretation of British royal history.