The story of two women fighting for influence at the 18th century British court of Queen Anne satirizes the grotesque and demeaning nature of raw power.
The Favourite is what they call a costume picture—a film about an earlier period of history that includes a lot of elaborate costumes and sets. Typically, a costume picture appeals primarily to the curiosity of audiences about the past, but The Favourite is different. Although it portrays a period in the reign of Great Britain’s Queen Anne in the early 18th century, its purpose is sharply satirical; its subject the exercise of power and the grotesque and demeaning forms that that exercise takes when people fight for survival within a stratified social order.
The year is 1708, and Great Britain is at war with France. The 44-year-old Queen Anne, played by Olivia Colman, is a virtual invalid, obese as well as suffering from numerous other debilitating ailments, while spending a great deal of time playing with her menagerie of pet rabbits. Constantly at her side is Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, wife of the lord who is waging the British campaign in France. Lady Sarah, played by Rachel Weisz, has managed to make herself the Queen’s closest friend and trusted advisor. In that capacity, she essentially rules the realm, with the Queen rubber-stamping her decisions. Part of the reason the Queen trusts her is that Sarah doesn’t flatter her, but insists on telling her the truth, however painful.
Along comes Sarah’s young cousin, Abigail Hill, played by Emma Stone. Abigail’s father lost his fortune from gambling, and now his daughter is impoverished and seeks employment with the help of her cousin, who puts her in the royal kitchen as a scullery maid. After witnessing the Queen’s painful agonies caused by rashes on her leg, Abigail gathers an herb that she knows about, makes an ointment, and surreptitiously applies it to the Queen’s leg when she’s asleep. From this small beginning, Abigail gains more and more favor with the Queen, threatening to usurp Sarah’s position. She also discovers that Sarah is sexually pleasuring the Queen in secret. The stage is set for a vicious struggle between Sarah and Abigail to decide which will be the Queen’s favourite.
The screenplay for The Favourite is by Deborah Davis, with some help from Tony McNamara, and it’s dark and very funny, but also pointed in its political satire. The three main characters, all women, act out the primal tactics of ruthless power that have been a part of politics for centuries, and there’s a definite correspondence with the same kinds of things we see today. The rough outline is historically accurate, but the details, including the often profane dialogue, are cooked up for maximum effect. The concern here is with satire, not with scrupulous accuracy.
The director is Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek avant-garde filmmaker best known up until now for The Lobster. His style and attitude are as uncompromising as ever, but instead of conceptual narrative tricks, he accentuates the flamboyant behaviors and symbols of 18th century tradition in order to poke fun at the way elaborate rituals disguise the shallow realities of malice and greed. We see it in the dancing, the men’s wigs, the makeup, and most blatantly in the sport of shooting at birds in which Sarah and Abigail try to outdo one another.
Lanthimos uses all natural lighting—just candles indoors, for instance—and extreme wide-angle lenses that create an almost iris-like distortion at times, and this, combined with the incredible set design, makes for a delightful visual texture. Weisz and Stone are formidable here, perfectly cast as opposites, but Olivia Colman dominates as the spoiled, infantile, but smarter than she seems Queen Anne. It’s one of those performances that just creeps up on you and takes you by surprise. In a supporting role, Nicholas Hoult is very amusing as the head of the Tory opposition, Lord Hartley.
My description might make it seem like the historical details are complicated, but in fact everything is quite clear and lucid under Lanthimos’s spirited direction. The ads and the trailers are making the movie seem like a raucous comedy, but it’s something much more artful than that. We never lose sight of the people underneath the disguises, or the terrible things they force themselves to endure. Behind the laughter is a very serious look at the politics of raw power itself, and it’s not a pretty sight. The Favourite is a strong, but excellent tonic.