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Yorgos Lanthimos‘ The Favourite, a period piece dramedy starring three great actresses — Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz — emerged from its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival riding high, with glowing reviews pouring in and some even declaring it the film to beat in the best picture Oscar race. On Saturday, the film, which Fox Searchlight will release Nov. 23, had its North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival’s Palm Theatre, following a tribute to star Emma Stone, and reactions here were a bit more divided.
Lanthimos is a Greek filmmaker synonymous with weird. That’s not a criticism — it’s a fact, based on his prior filmography, which includes 2009’s Dogtooth (a nominee for the best foreign language film Oscar), 2015’s The Lobster (a nominee for the best original screenplay Oscar and a personal favorite of mine) and 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Now comes The Favourite, which is set in early 18th century England and centers on two women — one a lady-in-waiting (Weisz), the other a former aristocrat whose father gambled away the family’s wealth and left her in poverty (Stone) — who are both competing for the affections of the ailing and mercurial Queen Anne (Colman, who will soon play another queen, Queen Elizabeth, on The Crown). Stone’s character initially works under Weisz’s character, before trying to go around her. Viewers are calling the film a cross between Ken Russell and Stanley Kubrick, with a little All About Eve thrown in — in other words, yes, weird.
Critics are sometimes blinded by fealty to their favorite auteurs — a favorite recent example is Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Inherent Vice, which was hailed by many as one of 2014’s best films, but decidedly was not — so the RottenTomatoes.com score of The Favourite (currently 100 percent, after 16 reviews, but before most reviews from Telluride have been counted) is less interesting to me than the candid off-the-record conversations I had with numerous journalists and Academy members after the screening. They were far more upbeat about the film’s performances (Searchlight is still sorting out which of the actresses will be pushed as leads and which as supporting players) and production values (the costumes and sets are stunning) than the overall picture (which definitely plays better with women than men, which could prove a factor since the Academy is still 69 percent male).
Searchlight has carried atypical fare to awards success before — just last year, The Shape of Water followed the Venice-Telluride trajectory en route to winning the best picture Oscar — so time will tell how this one plays with an Academy that has markedly changed over the last few years, adding quite a few international members to its ranks. It seems to me that it is all but assured of Oscar noms for best costume design (the great Sandy Powell) and best production design (Top of the Lake‘s Fiona Crombie). An original screenplay nom for Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara‘s eccentric script — which gets a bit repetitive but is undeniably inventive, encompassing everything from duck races to a nude fat man being pelted with fruit — seems possible. Colman, a respected veteran who has the showiest and most complex of the three parts as a, well, drama queen, would probably sail to a supporting nom, and might be able to crack lead if she doesn’t have to compete against her co-stars. As for picture and director? Come Oscar season, it certainly helps for a film to have some explicit or even implicit social relevance or message, and I’m not sure this one does — but, under the current voting system, even a small but passionate Academy constituency could put it into contention.
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