Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Cast: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn
“Are you here to fuck me or rape me?”
“I’m a gentleman!”
“Right. [spreads legs] Rape, it is then!”
The Favourite sexes up the cinema of British Aristocracy in the darkest and most deadpan way possible. A 16th century Palace that looks like a circus in the day and a prison-cum-cave at night? Check. A manic-depressive, ill, needy, lonely, whiny and hopelessly insecure Queen of England? Check. Cartoonish men that are pawns to the whims of their crude mistresses? Check. Cussing Royals that swear by the pleasures of “how deep her tongue feels inside me”? Check. A lesbian lust triangle? A ruthlessly wicked rags-to-riches drama? The tunes of Bach and Vivaldi used as a punkish chamber-background score? Triple check.
If you listen closely, you can almost hear “Greek Weird Wave” pioneer Yorgos Lanthimos scoff at the courteous correctness of royalty – not just the haughty physicality of its time-hating halls, but also at the intellectual royalty of elite audiences that might have expected yet another art-house googly from him after The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. If you listen more closely, you might even hear the irony of The Favourite becoming the odds-on favourite in an awards season that has traditionally taken a shine to prim and proper period biopics. History is merely a costume in Lanthimos’ eccentric ruling-class anti-epic, while all its world is a deceitful stage. The Favourite doesn’t just “enjoy” the juiciest tidbits of forbidden fruit from the royal archives; it designs the past as if it were virtually a parody of kinky present-day corporate-class thrillers. The result is a quick-witted, profane and cynical quasi-comedy that slices through the prestige of the threads tasked with masking the private fragilities of public figures.
History is merely a costume in Lanthimos’ eccentric ruling-class anti-epic, while all its world is a deceitful stage.
The brilliant Olivia Colman, who is incidentally set to appear as an older (and very polished) Queen Elizabeth II in the third season of Netflix’s The Crown, is the delirious and childishly vulnerable Queen Ann here. She is the bleeding heart and naïve soul of the story – an object of affection torn between two scheming female gazes, yet a deranged widow and grieving mother yearning to feel less like an object. Rachel Weisz is Duchess of Marlborough Sarah Churchill: a predecessor of Winston Churchill, but more importantly a secret lover and dominating partner of the frequently indisposed Queen. Their colourful little arrangement is turned upside down with the arrival of Sarah’s poor cousin, Abigail – she is played by American actress Emma Stone, who brandishes a British accent so sturdy that it almost betrays her sense of naked ambition. Sarah and Abigail engage in a bout of saucy one-upwomanship that riffs on every genre between a playful romantic comedy and a perverse Shakespearean tragedy. Many of the bedroom and corridor sequences are shot with a wide fish-eye lens, creating an illusion of fable-like intrigue – an atmosphere where none of them are bigger than the Palace they inhabit and strive towards. Yet somehow, beneath the eye-popping gimmickry of the film’s genre-fluid form, each of the three women manages to be defined by the psychology of jilted desire.
Ann is mad and madly entertaining with her mood swings. What she shares with Sarah is abusive but strangely sweet – a relationship that puts us in the position of believing that there is more to them beyond a clandestine affair. Abigail is methodical and manipulative. Any other movie might have even painted her journey as the classic underdog-hero tale – one where the commoner jolts the foundations of snooty aristocracy by infiltrating the skies that looked down on her. But she is the villain of The Favourite – a girl so seduced by the promise of power that she turns the flawed humanity of the Ann-Sarah equation into the actual underdog. She makes them look pure in comparison.
We chuckle, and instantly feel ashamed for doing so, and then wonder if we are bad people for being amused by these familiar frailties of human (and especially female) nature
It takes us a while to recognize that she might just be mirroring her cousin’s own rise to the top – and that she is simply a spirited pretender to Sarah’s throne-in-waiting. Both of them use men as a formal device of reputation despite exhibiting distaste for male attention. Their husbands, just like the clothes they wear, are props that are secondary to their plots. At one point, Abigail gives her admirer a bored handjob while fretting about Sarah’s next move; Stone performs this so off-handedly that she turns a potentially disturbing moment into something…cute. Endearing, even.
The Favourite does this repeatedly. It judges us through its three audacious leads: We chuckle, and instantly feel ashamed for doing so, and then wonder if we are bad people for being amused by these familiar frailties of human (and especially female) nature. The narrative is divided into chapters smugly titled after modern lines of dialogue (“this mud stinks,” “I dream about stabbing your eyes with a pen”). This furthers the rather disorienting feeling of watching a film whose charm lies in the fact that their characters seem to be visibly mocking our preconceived notions of their environment. Of the “way” they should perhaps be behaving. The feminism, therefore, is an analogy of the film’s form: Forget women and wives, should costume dramas exhibit such bad manners? Should language – both visual and verbal – not be the final frontier of high status? Is it O.K. for Queens and slaves to be so…entertaining? I mean, fuck.