Complex women at the core of top Oscar contender The Favourite

The Favourite won a leading seven awards at the recent British Academy Film Awards, including Baftas for Best Actress (Colman) and Best Supporting Actress (Weisz).
The Favourite won a leading seven awards at the recent British Academy Film Awards, including Baftas for Best Actress (Colman) and Best Supporting Actress (Weisz).PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

LOS ANGELES - It may be set in 18th century England, but The Favourite - about two female courtiers vying for the affections of capricious Queen Anne - is no fusty period drama.

Instead, the film - a top Oscar contender that opens on Feb 14 - feels strangely contemporary in its tale of political intrigue, hidden love and loneliness at the top. And director Yorgos Lanthimos achieved that through subtle tweaks in the dialogue, music and one memorably odd dance scene.

"We found different ways and elements to infuse the film with a modern texture," he says at a screening in Los Angeles in January.

"The first and most important thing was that when writing the screenplay, we used language that felt modern, even though it was inspired by how we think people spoke at the time.

"And then with things like costume design, we wanted to keep the shapes of the period but use a lot of contemporary materials, from leather and vintage denim to plastic and 3D-printed accessories. It is quite subtle - you don't necessarily see that immediately, but it gives it a texture and does inform the film visually."

Some of those creative gambles seem to have paid off as the film is up for 10 awards at the upcoming Oscars. Tying with the Spanish-language drama Roma for the most nominations this year, it is in contention for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress for star Olivia Colman and Best Supporting Actress for Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz.

It won a leading seven awards at the recent British Academy Film Awards, including Baftas for Best Actress (Colman) and Best Supporting Actress (Weisz).

Lanthimos says the movie - which casts Colman as Queen Anne, Weisz as the Duchess of Marlborough and Stone as Abigail Masham, the latter's ambitious cousin - was a labour of love that took him eight years to make.

 

The 45-year-old Greek film-maker - previously best known for the quirky dystopian allegory The Lobster (2015) - was captivated by the story of how Masham rises to power in the court of the mercurial monarch, becoming a potential threat to the influence of the duchess, the power behind the throne.

The appeal for him was "that it was a true story - that at some point in time, these three women had such power".

Another draw: "Their personal stories and what Queen Anne went through, and the fact that this very intimate story about these three women could showcase how much individuals can affect the lives of millions of other people."

The female-centric storyline seems apt for a time when women's issues are increasingly in the spotlight with the #MeToo and Time's Up movements and the prominence of female politicians in recent years.

But Lanthimos says the current political climate had little bearing on why he put women in the foreground of his film. "Eight years ago, nobody was even speaking about that. But for me, it was an instinctive thing, rather than me logically thinking we should make more films with women."

That said, he was interested in part "because I wasn't seeing many films that had women as protagonists, especially three women".

He also felt compelled to portray the three central characters in all their Machiavellian, self-serving and yet relatable and vulnerable complexity.

"I thought from the beginning that we should make these characters as complex as possible, with so many different shades of grey, just like in real life.

"There's all kinds of women just like there's all kinds of men," says Lanthimos, who is married to Greek-born French actress Ariane Labed, 34. "There are terrible people, wonderful people, loving, manipulative - it all exists, sometimes within the same person."

In addition to being a political drama, the movie is an unlikely love story, too - although the director is not fond of categorising cinema in this manner.

"This is definitely about love and it's a very intimate story, but at the same time, it speaks about politics and war and many other things.

"I never like to define films as being about one thing - I hope they can be about many things," says Lanthimos.

"That's what I'm looking for when I decide if a story interests me - if it's more than one thing, if you can see it from different angles, and if different people can watch it and think about different things depending on who they are."

The Favourite opens on Feb 14.