Do I love a historical drama or what! I am more in favor of non-European historical dramas, but there is something so downright indulgent and beautifully nasty about 18th century British history that escalates the drama in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite to be extra delightful. This film could really be dubbed as a new age Marie Antoinette (2006), set in the age of #MeToo and complete with some long overdue edge, an Insta-worthy blue hue filter and Oscar-winning cinematic lesbians. Something I didn’t realize was that the term ‘[court] favourite’ historically and explicitly refers to the sexual companion(s) of a ruler. But of course if you saw the trailer, you already knew that. Based on the rumored-to-be-true story, Sarah Churchhill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) are cousins but of vastly different classes and positions within the royal court, both vying to be the court favourite of the extremely ill Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Sarah, as the Duchess of Marlborough, is already the favourite at the start of the film, and with the introduction of Abigail, her position quickly becomes derailed as Abigail moves her way up the ladder and into the Queen’s bed.
All three of the women at the center of this film are intricately written, and individually complex. Sarah is witty and intimidating, willingly using the political power given to her (or taken by her) from the weak-willed queen, to wage more war between Britain and France. She is also physically daunting in a way that can only be portrayed so exquisitely by Rachel Weisz’s steely, focused eyes. Abigail, who comes in under the guise as a clueless servant girl begging her cousin for a job, quickly sheds this Trojan horse facade to match Sarah’s level of cunning to seduce the queen. Emma Stone unfortunately does hold her own opposite much more seasoned actors like Weisz and Colman. And Queen Anne, who I find to be the most compelling of the three, is an annoyingly childlike and very dependently ill queen, brought down by severe depression, gout, and grief. She quickly turns into a figure of odd pity and sympathy as she is taken advantage of by these two women. She, however, never fails to remind Sarah and Abigail, and us, that at the end of the day, she is still the queen.
What’s markedly different about this film, as opposed to something like The Handmaiden (2016) or even Rachel Weisz’s other 2018 lesbian film Disobedience, is that this film doesn’t try to milk the sex scenes for attention or controversy. There is so much intention, in the writing and the direction, behind when Sarah and Anne have a long makeout session before retreading to the bedroom, versus when Abigail is summoned to rub Anne’s aching legs in the night before they have a quick, and presumably one-sided, fling. It reflects the last words of Sarah’s appearance before the queen, that she undoubtedly cared for Anne and their relationship, whereas Abigail merely used her to climb the aristocratic ladder. With a film like this, it’s easy for it to fall into the line of the male gaze, especially with a male director, but The Favourite treads far away enough from that line to portray three different relationships among women that, at the end of the day, is about power more than anything else. It’s true what they say, women are conniving bitches after all!
As deeply rooted in history as this movie is, The Favourite is also one of the funniest prestige movies I’ve seen this year. The original screenplay, penned by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, is so full of witty insults and L-O-L situations and injects into this often dry genre a well-needed punch of comedy. The dialogue is backed by Lanthimos’ love for monotonous but cutting delivery (see: 2015’s The Lobster) and absurdist visual tendencies. I would really love to see Best Costume Designing go to this film (among other awards), not necessarily for the women’s costumes, but actually the men’s. The men here, even the most prominent one (Mr. Harley, played by Nicholas Hoult), are all relegated to the background in barely supporting roles. While the women are deliberately shown with mostly naturalistic makeup, the men are always in extravagant wigs and costumes, with freshly powdered white foundation caked on their faces, their eyelashes coated in thick mascara and reaching for the heavens. Their roles are inconsequential to the real events of the film, and are actually played up for laughs most of the time, which is a refreshing shift from what is typical of historical period dramas.
I feared going into this film that the extravagance would impede the actual story, as did happen with The Revenant (2015). But unlike that film, The Favourite uses its impressive cinematography to service the story. The fishbowl lens and the wide-angle shots orients the viewer into the world of the court and these women, whose perspectives are distorted by their struggle for power. The final shot, a composite long take exposing the true power dynamic that lies within the court and the court favourites, is chilling, weird, and somehow quite perfect for this equally weird film.