I saw the trailer for The Favourite twice before realizing it was a Yorgos Lanthimos film, a film maker I’ve generally avoided in the past. His films always looked like they ranged from sour (The Lobster) to downright miserable (Killing of the Sacred Deer). That’s all well and good, I suppose, and I’m frequently ready for a dark film, but I find films even more affecting if there are laughs and fun along the way. If things start bad and get worse, I sort of shrug at the film and say “okay, you proved your point, but no one really lost anything because they never had hope of anything better, the audience included.” It feels in some ways that the film has won a rigged game – the world is cruel and hopeless, so there was no other potential conclusion. If, instead, the people live in a fair world and fall prey to their own follies it’s almost sadder, and, hell, just a lot more fun. That’s why I didn’t immediately recognize The Favourite as a Lanthimos film – I never doubted he was a good craftsman but The Favourite looked truly fun. And it was truly fun to watch three powerful women absolutely refuse to surrender anything to each other and destroy themselves in the process.
The Favourite begins with England at war with France, a fact Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) gleefully forgets as she gifts her childhood friend and current key advisor, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), a castle. The film quickly sets up their dynamic: Anne is… well, Queen, but she is also often childish and mercurial. Sarah is able to both comfort her, and be brutally honest with her, because there is a real love between the two. As soon as the relationship is set up it’s thrown off-kilter with the arrival of Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin who has fallen on hard times and lost her ladyship. Sarah employs Abigail reluctantly, and Abigail quickly begins attempting to climb the ranks to win back what she has lost, and in the meantime drives a wedge between Sarah and the Queen. Meanwhile, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) the minority leader in the Parliament campaigns for an end of the war, while the majority leader Sidney Godolphin (James Smith) does his best to both continue the war and retain his power. It’s a subplot that reminded me a lot of the Widows subplot – it is a fully realized story that also serving to fuel the primary plot.
To capture what I loved so much about The Favourite I’ll break down a scene that more or less ends Act I (I could endlessly breakdown scenes, and maybe will in a more spoiler oriented article later). Looking to gain eyes on the inside Harley approaches Abigail and asks her to spy on Sarah, who supports Godolphin, for him. Abigail later tells Sarah of Harley’s request, and adamantly (and truthfully) tells Sarah she turned down the offer. Sarah is unimpressed – she suggests she expects people to play both sides and doesn’t fully trust Abigail. Stone plays the moment wonderfully: we see as Abigail immediately realizes loyalty isn’t the currency of the court. Subterfuge is. She shifts her plans accordingly.
That’s what’s so wonderful about the characters in The Favourite. It’s not that any of them start the movie looking to do harm to each other. Circumstance forces them into it, and they don’t realize until it’s too late that it’s not a game of climbing over each other: they’re all sinking, and pushing someone down doesn’t necessarily gain you any ground. All it does is force that other person, who is now deeper than you are, to pull you down with them. The film is careful not to demonize the grasping for power though. It constantly reminds us that the 18th century would not grant these women any sort of power unless they desperately grasped at it. It’s a mixture of social evils and personal pride that forces them constantly deeper into the quagmire, but it’s impossible to blame them because they don’t truly have any other options.
Which is to say nothing of the other elements of the film, all truly astounding. It’s simply impossible to pick a favorite out of the actors: the three leads all deliver devious powerhouse performances without ever making their characters unrelatable or unlikable. The cinematography makes ample use of the fisheyed lens to distort spaces and people as they move through them. Hallways collapse in on themselves. It is dizzying and distorting and absolutely lovely. The music is equally off-putting, sparse plucking metronomic strings alternating (or mixing) with raunchy good time tunes, as unrelenting as the characters and their world. Costumes echo the tone of the movie – they’re mostly in period but also convey a sense of false dignity that, if a single piece is removed, descends into high silliness and frivolity. It’s a disservice to give each element only a single line. All together they work to make the movie feel like it is goofily, terrifyingly closing in tighter and tighter without offering any sort of escape. It’s a grim comedy of errors, and each element supports both the whimsy and grotesquery that entails.
I can’t stop thinking about this movie, and if I hadn’t finally cancelled my Moviepass I’d most definitely be going to see it again. Maybe I will anyway.
I give The Favourite 9.5 cake-induced pukes out of 10 kneeing your lover in the groins.
- It feels we are slowly crawling closer to the year of the woman. Between The Favourite, Thoroughbreds, and Widows some of my absolute favorite movies this year have focused on female relationships (in all three cases it doesn’t feel right to call them friendships). It shouldn’t feel remarkable, of course, and it’s a disservice to view these films through just that prism, but it’s a modicum of hope: maybe one day we’ll get both terrible and fantastic films about women and no one will even mention it (it’s worth noting, too, that all three films were directed by men, so… you know, just a modicum of hope).