What do you expect from a period film? Gothic architecture, period-appropriate dresses, and documentation of what the world was like in those days. The Favourite, by Yorgos Lanthimos, upends these expectations and provides us with a spectacular enigma in the name of a period film.
Portraying a much lesser-known part of English history, this movie delves deep into the court of Queen Anne, who used to rule over England in the 19th century. However, this movie is as much about two other women as it is about Queen Anne: Sarah Marlborough and Abigail Hill. Sarah Marlborough was the confidante of Queen Anne, who, owing to her general ill health and lack of interest in politics, had wilfully handed over the reins to Sarah. Sarah's husband, along with tens and thousands of Englishmen, hence continued to wage war against France, because she said so. As film critic Mark Kermode correctly pointed out, the film's dynamics make us aware of how the personal happenings of royals had such a sizable impact on the polity. Abigail, on the other hand, despite being from an aristocratic lineage, had lost the respect of being called a lady, owing to her father's financial losses, and had been diminished to being part of the scullery. She had, however, clawed her way back into the aristocracy by joining the service of Queen Anne and slowly winning her confidence.
We begin with an overly confident and composed Lady Marlborough with an eternally confused and clueless Queen Anne. Aside from being naive and clueless about the world outside, Queen Anne is also deeply sorrowful and traumatised. And it is her trauma that shows itself in her ever-so-random bouts of anger. She is unaware of the riots that might have started in Leeds in opposition to the relentless war, but she wishes to know. Her ignorance, then, becomes less scornful as we understand that information is being deliberately withheld from her by her confidante and prime minister, Godolphin as opposed to her being elite and indifferent about it. In a moving scene, she shares with Abigail how she has lost around 17 children, some of whom were born without blood, while others lived too less. My heart ached for her because that one scene laid bare a rough idea of what her life must have been like. Having gone through such mind-numbing pain and the loss of almost everyone she called her own, she now places all her trust in Sarah. Sarah, however, uses her relationship, sexual and otherwise, with the queen for her ulterior motives. Newcomer Abigail quickly understands the schism that exists between the two and weaponises the high-handedness of Lady Marlborough to win over the Queen.
The cinematography of this film greatly enhances the experience of watching it; the camera constantly reminds us that we are witnessing something more than just a period film. The lens bends the screen and looks at the characters through weird angles. The cinematography breaks the norm of static frames and drives home the film's surprisingly personal feel. Each scene has been staged in an immaculate manner. It felt as though a torn page of my history book was being portrayed in front of me. The soft pastel tone masterfully blends with the intricate details of each piece of decor on-screen. Intimate scenes are replete with women in unkempt attires, enhancing the tenderness that stands in stark contrast to the sharp dresses they wear in court during the day.
Abigail and her interactions with Samuel Masham, a prince who ends up marrying her, have been beautifully constructed; one can't help but ruminate over them long after you have watched them be. Although the power dynamic dictates Abigail to be the subservient one, it is Masham who is teasingly mocked. Abigail might have fallen from respect but her hardships have prepared her not to accept defeat from anything. This downfall from the aristocracy and the contact with poverty exposed to her the ruthlessness of the world out there. Her father had sold her, in the lieu of money, following which she was devoured by many men. After all the assault her life had gone through, all Abigail wanted was to live a life that she thought she deserved. Hence, she used Samuel Masham to rise in the ranks, and once she did, she started thinking about her next move, and her "enemy". In a spectacular scene, right after their marriage, when Masham simply wanted to have sex, Abigail just helped him masturbate while thinking aloud the many thoughts that crowded her brain. The true nature of Abigail is revealed to us then. She wants to have a secure life, not one where every pitstop provokes anxiety. Is it unfair of her to want that?
This documentation of the court of Queen Anne and the interplay of emotions that happened behind is mesmerising. The acquisition of power, which is often portrayed as a man's game, is played aptly by women who realise the limitations of their gender but work their way around those limiting structures. The claustrophobia of aristocracy and unluckiness of being born poor have been shown brilliantly.