* * * ½
The Favourite (2018) is not my favorite film by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), but it is certainly worth your time. Suffused with cutting wit and dark humor, The Favourite also showcases exceptional performances from its three female leads, stunning sets and costumes, and effectively capitalizes on its period piece subject matter. You may not leave this film feeling good about humanity (or at least the humanity represented in the movie) but you will certainly have enjoyed the viciously hilarious dialogue and the at times inventive filmmaking.
The film focuses on the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) of England in the early 18th century, when England was at war with France. Rather than looking through a geo-political lens and focusing on the larger historical events, the film preoccupies itself with a much more insular, intimate topic – the idiosyncrasies of Queen Anne, her closest confidantes, and the royal court at large. The Queen Anne depicted in the film is sick with gout and quite incompetent. She is constantly looking for pleasurable distractions, and is both a victim of tragedies in her past and unfavorable circumstances in her present. Queen Anne’s initial “favorite” in the film is Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), a lover and “friend” who takes advantage of the Queen’s physical and mental/emotional frailties to basically run the country by proxy. Sarah’s long lost cousin, Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), eventually enters the fray as a former aristocrat who has fallen from grace and who is determined to climb back up the social and economic ladder at whatever cost. The dramatic arc of the film follows the rivalry between Sarah and Abigail, and the ways in which the Queen’s favor shifts from one to the other.
Colman, Weisz and Stone all do a tremendous job with their uniquely demanding roles. Colman is getting a lot of recognition for this performance, and rightfully so. Her Queen Anne is a sickly and indulgent woman who almost entirely escapes our sympathies. Colman is able to bring out the absurdity and juvenile aspects of this woman (e.g., she seems more concerned with her seventeen rabbits or with racing lobsters than she is with the war that is directly threatening her country). Colman is also able to evoke the deep sadness and vulnerability of Queen Anne. We see how the death of her seventeen children has forever marked her, and how starved she is for love and acceptance, for any interaction not informed by the high octane palace intrigue that surrounds her. Weisz’s Sarah Churchill is a confident, intelligent, and ruthless woman who will do what needs to get done in order to protect her position and steer the country in a direction that aligns with her interests. She is at times the most sympathetic of the three leads, perhaps due to the fact that she is never pretending to not be screwing other people over. Stone’s Abigail is resourceful and a quick study of the court’s ultimate player, her cousin Sarah. Abigail learns so well that she becomes the most dangerous woman in the room, willing to do anything in her quest for status and power. While each performance alone is praiseworthy, the interaction between these characters and the dialogue throughout the film is truly excellent. There is much sinister enjoyment in watching Abigail spar with Sarah over their relative status in the Queen’s fickle eye. Similarly, there are great exchanges when we see Sarah take the Queen down a peg, or conversely, when the Queen, finally realizing that the powerful personalities buzzing about her are not her friends, undercuts the well laid plans of both Sarah and Abigail.
The sets and costumes in the film are beautiful and give the eye much to appreciate. Lanthimos’ direction serves the story, while also calling attention to the comic nature of certain aspects of the royal court. For example, he uses a fish eye lens in various scenes, making the audience feel as though they are watching a nanny cam or reality television show. This is a great way of undercutting the gravity of the historic setting and milieu, in a way calling attention to the absurdity and hilarity of the court and its denizens. The music is also occasionally employed toward a similar aim. The soundtrack is sometimes period / classical music, and others atmospheric. The classical music is often played to comic extremes, serving as dramatic counterpoint to the amusing and often stupid events playing out on the screen (e.g., duck races, or a scene where a group of men from parliament are throwing fruit at a naked man in front of a privacy screen).
There is memorable use of a kind of visual dissolve wherein two or more characters’ faces in close up slowly dissolve over one another. This technique helps to communicate strong emotions and internal feelings without spelling anything out overtly. In one of these dissolves, we see Queen Anne and Lady Churchill’s faces blend together, hinting at their need for each other, but also the dangers of their over familiarity. For the Queen, Sarah’s growing confidence means less of a role for her and in fact a kind of erasure of her as Queen. For Sarah, the burdens of satisfying the Queen’s every whim become taxing and ultimately untenable. Later on, in the film’s final scene, when the Queen is forcing Abigail to “rub her legs” (this is actually quite sexual, for the Queen at least), we see Queen Anne and Abigail’s faces visually dissolve over one another, along with the image of the many rabbits hopping about the Queen’s bedchamber. This final dissolve plays out for quite some time, and is accompanied by an unsettling, intensifying soundscape. It is perhaps the most disturbing scene in the film, and effectively communicates the numbing, suffocating, and unfulfilling realities that both Queen Anne and Abigail find themselves in. Queen Anne, no matter where she looks, or to whom she turns, cannot escape her past or the impossibility of her current position. Abigail, even after climbing to the top and besting her more experienced foe, finds herself no more than a kind of living, breathing sex toy for the Queen; far from having won, she has simply traded one unsavory life for another.
I am not raving about this movie, in part, because I don’t feel as though I could really connect with any of the characters. During the film, the overwhelming sense I got was that these characters are either ruthless and unredeemable or quite depressing and hard to watch. As mentioned above, Lanthimos does kind of steer our emotions in that direction through some of the cinematography / score, which both seem to mock the characters and their reality. That said, the time period of the film’s setting, and the unique social environment that it portrays were not places particularly amenable to vulnerable, sympathetic personalities. The film depicts a world in which the vast majority of the population is suffering through war or economic insecurity. For those not on top, life is either quite miserable or at least precarious. Given all of that, it is understandable how someone, especially a woman facing the additional hurdle of gender inequality, would erect a kind of solid front and steel herself for constant battle.
Though you may not feel it during the movie, some sympathy is due each of the three main characters. The Queen has lost seventeen children. She is not a Queen by choice, but by the accident of her birth. It’s clear she does not want to be Queen, and at the same time resents (as anyone would) being steamrolled by others who are more adept at governance. She really is in an impossible situation. Sarah shows herself to be the most “adult” / resilient / adaptable person in the room in a number of scenes. For example, she voluntarily burns the love letters that she had previously threatened to use to blackmail the Queen; when she realizes she is being banished from the country, she takes it in stride and acts as if a change of scenery is something she welcomes. Abigail was sold off by her father to pay a gambling debt. She has endured physical and mental torment and is struggling to regain a measure of dignity and comfort that she, understandably, feels was wrongly stolen from her. But again, that’s me thinking about these characters after the film. When you’re in the world of the film, it’s a dark place, full of nasty wordplay and sickly, garish opulence, but not much humanity.
I would recommend The Favourite to anyone especially interested in period films, or in particular, films about the English royal court. The film offers a unique take on the subject matter, and like some other period pieces (I’m thinking of certain Shakespeare adaptations), effectively injects modern style into the historic subject matter. However, if you are not particularly inclined toward period films or this time period, you may not be blown away by this one. Likewise, if you are a fan of Lanthimos, I would not say this is his strongest work (The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer are more exciting and inventive in my opinion). That said, two hours spent watching The Favourite is certainly no waste of time. You’ll see one of the award-winning performances of the year, and might even pick up some new royally acerbic trash talk, sure to fend off even the bitterest of rivals.