I never much expected Yorgos Lanthimos to become a great filmmaker. He was always a very good filmmaker, and it must be noted that we’re reserving the term great here for someone truly deserving of the moniker, as in one of the all-time greats. Nowadays great gets bandied about a lot. Is Ridley Scott great? From time to time, sure. Maybe we weigh the greatness of Blade Runner against the decidedly-not-so-greatness of Alien: Covenant? Is Francis Ford Coppola great? He definitely was. Does he get a lifetime pass for Godfather and Apocalypse Now? Is Wes Anderson great? No, he’s not. Stylish, yes. Symmetrical, very. But a mere few living filmmakers are transcendently, naturally, consistently great. Surely it’s a malleable and transient label, fit to be removed, re-earned, reconsidered. And surely — as The Dude would say in that movie by the great Coen Brothers — it’s just, like, your opinion, man.
Lanthimos isn’t yet one of the all-time greats, but watching The Favourite I did think, for the first time, that he might just have it in him someday. Such a consideration might have been questionable after his previous film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, an overly melancholy tale featuring a creepy turn from Barry Keoghan, one cool shot of a descending escalator, a Funny Games-esque climax and a whole bunch of monotone dialogue. It wasn’t a bad movie, and it might even be a pretty good movie. But the cold design of Sacred Deer made it impactful but never resonant. Maybe it was just so different than The Lobster, the previous effort from Lanthimos, which was a darkly funny and much more inventive film.
But it turns out this discrepancy speaks to one of Lanthimos’s strengths after all. The Favourite is not, probably, an all-time great work of cinematic genius. It is, however, an absolutely one-of-a-kind piece of filmmaking, a movie with a strong and unique character, dripping with confidence. Confidence is only part of greatness, though. The aforementioned Wes Anderson seems pretty confident in his framing and established style, but then again that doesn’t seem to waver much from his first film to his last. He’d better be confident by this point. A director like Lanthimos, though, who manages such conviction even when creating something vastly different than the previous work or the work before that — there’s something more special about this kind of versatility.
In a sense, the disconnect between the old and the new is a big part of The Favourite, both thematically and stylistically. The story unfolds under the rule of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), when her old friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) starts feeling upstaged by newcomer Abigail (Emma Stone). Underhanded bitterness turns to outward hatred, and our own sympathy or enmity toward these three primary characters is constantly challenged. You’re likely to root for Abigail in one instance and feel more strongly about Sarah a few scenes later. And particular credit on this point should go to Colman, who makes Queen Anne likable, deplorable, regal, pathetic, and downright hilarious with a complicated performance that shifts allegiances by the minute.
Stylistically, The Favourite lives almost entirely in that jarring valley between the old and the new. At times it feels as if Stanley Kubrick — probably one of the greats, definitely a versatile and confident genre-hopper — set up Barry Lyndon as originally intended, carefully constructing and lighting a Victorian-era period drama, and then turned around and filmed the thing through a fish-eye lens with a ton of whip pans. Half of The Favourite — the incredible production design, costuming, even the narrative logline — seems geared toward a traditional and serious drama. But that remaining half — the script, the cinematography — is decidedly new-age in its approach.
Maybe Lanthimos’s film would have made for good drama, but the comedic tone injects a jolt of fresh life into what might have otherwise been a totally serviceable episode of Downton Abbey. Period comedies do exist, but the comedy itself is rarely modern comedy; when it is, it’s usually a zany affair like Your Highness or Tristram Shandy. In the hands of any other director, The Favourite would likely have become one of these: a straightforward, traditional drama or a zany, goofy comedy. Those imaginary versions might have been good, or even great — but they’d also be a dime a dozen.
At the end of the day, one supposes striving for originality is more important than striving for greatness. After the IFFBoston screening last week, part of me wished for an ending that would tie The Favourite up in a tighter bow, perhaps something with an escalated bombast to match the energy of the rest of the film. But in retrospect, the conclusion proves as unexpected as the rest of the film, cementing the whole affair as a genuinely distinct experience. I’m excited to see where Lanthimos goes next, and The Favourite suggests that the avenues are endless.