Do you have a favourite? Not just a best friend, though they can play that role. Perhaps a sibling or a spouse, someone whose judgement you trust, someone who knows you as well as you do yourself. Someone you could rely on so much that they could take over your life. What if the power you gave to this favourite was, effectively, power over an entire nation? What, then, if you found yourself with two potential favourites? What would that reveal about where the true power lay?
The Favourite*, the latest film from Yorgos Lanthimos, sees men play games of war and politics as women wield the real power.
Lanthimos does not make comfortable films. His The Lobster was an unsettling allegorical take on the societal and personal pressure to find “the one” romantic partner and escape singledom. The Killing of a Sacred Deer was even harder to parse, but examining how much one would sacrifice to preserve the appearance of a perfect family life is probably part of it. With The Favourite, it might seem that the director has gone straight: there’s no Colin Farrell in the lead role and he’s now firmly in historical costume drama territory—it’s even set in an English monarch’s court.
But this is not a comfortable movie. Oh no, not at all.
For a start, the court is that of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs, isolated and childless. Anne herself appears as a petulant, almost childlike figure, as essayed by the magnificent Olivia Colman, in a performance that’s already picked up an award or two and is more than likely to take her all the way to the Oscars. If Colman’s Anne is childlike though, it’s largely because the actual running of the court is in the hands of her Lady of the Bedchamber, Sarah Churchill, played with clipped efficiency by Rachel Weisz.
Into their well-ordered world comes Emma Stone’s Abigail Hill, impoverished cousin to Sarah Churchill and apparent ground zero for all of the indignities that the world can heap on a young woman with no resources or protectors to fall back on. Thanks to Sarah, Abigail obtains a position in Anne’s court, kicking the whirl of the film’s plot into motion. For each of these women has depths, ambitions, and needs, as well as the wit to exploit the weaknesses of others.
One of the most fun things about this movie is how decorative the men are. Lanthimos takes the powdered and periwigged styles of the age and uses them as a signifier. John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough and Sarah’s husband, may be the greatest general of his day, but he’s a genial nonentity in the film. Nicholas Hoult’s scheming Tory Robert Harley is the most effective male figure by a distance, but he too is at the mercy of Anne’s power, having to work through whoever has her favour at any given time.
The preening courtiers that flock around Sarah Churchill and pay homage to Anne spend most of their time in completely frivolous pursuits. In two of the more outré scenes from the film, they roar on their favoured racing ducks and pelt one of their own, naked apart from his wig, with rotten pomegranates. The concerns of anything resembling the real world never touch them, and indeed that wider world is represented solely through their political manoeuvrings. Whereas some want to forge ahead with Marlborough’s war, others are disinclined to pay for it. Compared to this distant, mostly notional conflict, the daggers-drawn relationship between the three women is all the more real.
To render down the swings in fortune that attend the three main characters would be to do them and the film itself a disservice. Abigail’s ambition may come from a need to escape her impoverished state and ensure her security, but she’s far from simply a scheming social climber. Sarah’s initial appearance as an ultra-confident mistress of all she surveys belies the pressures she faces in maintaining that role, her genuine affection for Anne, and the resultant vulnerability that she spends a great deal of her effort concealing. As for Anne herself, her initially comical childlike behaviour is gradually stripped away to reveal the degree of pain that this woman, who suffered twelve miscarriages and more lost children throughout her life, endured. In the struggle between Sarah and Abigail, she finds ways to exert her own power again.
Although the film picks and chooses from history in service of its story, there’s still a raw authenticity about The Favourite. The soundtrack provides discomfort rather than reassurance, reflecting how life at the mercy of the whims of another can feel, and the costuming is both over-the-top and appropriate to the world it depicts. Special attention should be paid to the lighting too—like Kubrick with Barry Lyndon, Lanthimos seems to go with natural light for the most part, and the result is a gorgeous world that shifts from stark daylight in outdoors scenes to suffocating candlelight in narrow corridors.
The script too toes a line between modern and authentic archaisms, the most notable of which is the liberal use of the most brutal term for female anatomy, albeit one that’s a good bit older than most of its modern users might realise. It’s rarely used as an insult either, rather in a matter-of-fact way, reflecting that this is a world where women rule the roost, and it’s their intrigues that determine what the boys get to do. Long before the film began, the courtiers adapted to that, telling themselves whatever they needed to hear to deal with it. I wonder how many members of the audience might find it awkward.
Ultimately, this is a three-person film, with Colman, Weisz, and Stone circling each other as they seek to rewrite the world and their place in it. The greatest joy of The Favourite (and it can be very funny at times, as Lanthimos’s bleak humour works nicely in this setting) lies in the minuscule changes of expression that come over the faces of characters as they reach new moments of awareness, and the way that those characters lash out as they find a new situation not to their liking. The answer of who the viewer will choose as their favourite is an open one, and one that will likely change several times before the final credits roll.
*Pleasingly, the movie’s title uses the U.K. spelling for its title. In these days of Brexit, it’s nice to see someone standing up for our poor, benighted neighbours.