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(The brilliant Yorgos Lanthimos is back with The Favourite, a period piece which is in theaters now. Chris Reed submits this review which he saw at the Middleburg Film Festival ran October 18-21 in Middleburg, Virginia.)

An intriguing and witty period piece from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite tells the story of Queen Anne of Great Britain and Ireland (1665-1714, ruled 1702-1714) and the duel between two cousins over who should be her prized lady-in-waiting. Such a tale might sound odd to anyone familiar with Lanthimos’ earlier work, which includes such delightful oddities as Dogtooth and The Lobster (his first English-language feature), but the film is not as much of a departure as one might think. As ever fixated on dispassionate examinations of secretive groups governed by arcane rules, he has found in early-18th-century England a perfect time and place for his obsessions, at least as he represents life at court, here.

What is new is the amount of emotion and verbal jousting on screen. Leaving the monotone delivery of dialogue behind, Lanthimos empowers his excellent cast – headlined by Olivia Colman (Queen Elizabeth in Season 3 of Netflix’s The Crown), Rachel Weisz (My Cousin Rachel) and Emma Stone (Battle of the Sexes) – to express themselves with a wider range of feeling than that usually allowed in his œuvre. Combined with his customary precise compositions and mise-en-scène, this twist in style makes the film at once fresh and familiar.

As the story begins, Lady Sarah (Weisz) – Duchess of Marlborough – presides over Queen Anne (Colman) like a powerful prime minister, dictating who gains access to her majesty and what policies the queen puts forth. Then along comes young Abigail (Stone), forgotten (and impoverished) cousin of Lady Sarah, begging for any position at court. Lady Sarah obliges, making her a scullery maid. From there, the only way to go is up, which Abigail cleverly starts to do, proving herself as manipulative as the Queen’s current favorite (or “favourite,” to “favour” the British spelling). But should she gain prominence and supplant Lady Sarah, what then? Do not all systems of authority corrupt?

Certainly, the danger of assenting to bureaucracies and hierarchies is the wellspring of Lanthimos’ creative output, and The Favourite, however different in tone and style, continues his earlier explorations. Colman’s’ increasingly dotty monarch is the natural endpoint of such a social order, but all those who submit to the establishment eventually find themselves changed by it. There is no freedom within the chain of command.

Beyond the three leads, all at the top of their game, the supporting cast also shines, with Joe Alwyn (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), Nicholas Hoult (Equals) and James Smith (In the Loop) the particular standouts, not to mention the queen’s herd of adorable rabbits. Divided into 8 parts, not counting the opening, the film seems to challenge the nature of structure by its very structure. What, exactly, do the section headings mean, taking as their titles lines from within them? Focus too much on the details, and we lose the big picture, though the details are visually delicious to behold. We strive and we yearn, and yet still might just end up massaging royalty’s gouty feet. Such is life on this earthly edifice. Fade to black.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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