Year of release: 2018 Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, Nicholas Hoult, and James Smith.
The first time I watched The Favourite, around thirty minutes into it, I gasped and turned to the friends I was watching it with, unable to believe what I was hearing and seeing. The compiled score had begun employing an organ piece, one that I knew and loved: “Jesus Accepts His Suffering” from La Nativité du Seigneur by Olivier Messiaen.
At this point in the plot, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) had decided to attempt suicide, because her sufferings were beyond endurance since her favourite lady in waiting, the Duchess of Marlborough Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), had left her alone for too long to run the state.
I cannot think of a more perfect musical commentary on the vanity, shallowness, and manipulative character of the Queen as portrayed here. It was at that moment that I knew I was going to love this film.
Given my past experiences with Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, my love for The Favourite is surprising. Dogtooth remains one of the five worst films I’ve ever seen; I hated it so much I resolved to skip The Lobster until two friends said it was their favorite film of 2015. After hating that, I was going to skip The Killing of a Sacred Deer until I acquired a screener by chance, so I watched it, and while it was the first time that I thought Lanthimos allowed his absurdism to be a little bit playful, I still found the overarching misanthropy tiring.
However, The Favourite is different. For one thing the outside influences of screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara mitigates Lanthimos’ tendency to bludgeon his morbid jokes to a point well beyond death. The historical setting also makes this much easier to swallow as a cautionary tale about the dangers of vanity and envy as depicted through the corruption of the early eighteenth-century British court.
The vanity of Queen Anne makes her a Lear-like figure, wanting to be loved but mistaking flattery for love. Her tragic arc mirrors his in a totally expected way. I even described this to a friend as King Lear retold as a dark comedy from the perspectives of Goneril and Regan. Here, those two characters are Lady Sarah Churchill (Weisz) and her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone).
The defining characteristic of envy, as distinct from jealousy, is the inability to be happy for another’s good fortune. As the two ladies in waiting vie for the favouritism of the Queen, they become obsessed with their own success to the point that the other becomes a threat who must be eliminated. It’s a backstabbing story that Rachel Weisz has fittingly compared to All About Eve.
Instead of being set in a dog-eat-dog world of show business, The Favourite ruthlessly critiques the political world of Queen Anne’s court for being the same. The historical basis for the film is the transfer of power in Parliament from the Whigs to the Tories toward the end of her reign. England’s two-party system emerged during Queen Anne’s reign, and the inevitable reality of a two-party political system is that one side’s success means the other’s misfortune. The envy between the two women plays out on a less personal and more political level between the leader of the Whigs, Lord Godolphin (James Smith), and the leader of the Tories, Mister Harley (Nicholas Hoult), as both Sarah and Abigail form alliances to their advantages.
The reality of two women manipulating a power system designed by and for men is that they must work behind the scenes while letting the men think themselves still in charge. It takes a toll on the female characters, which can be seen by the absence of any Cordelia-like character in this twist on King Lear, since this sort of world has no place for such kindness, as Sarah warns Abigail in an early scene. The cost of navigating such a world comes to a climax when the results of Abigail’s nastiest act are crosscut with a debauched party among the foppish men of the court.
Naturally, sexuality features prominently into the attempts to control and use other people. In a world where the wisest choice is first and foremost staying on your own side, using people as sexual objects to get ahead makes perfect sense. Both Abigail and Sarah exploit the loneliness of Queen Anne through intimacy, compounding their envy. Abigail’s desperate state began because she was sold into an abusive marriage by her drunken father, and she reverses that fate through a second marriage which culminates in an hilariously loveless wedding night.
However, as caustic as the humor is throughout the film, there is real sympathy for all three women and their misfortunes. Queen Anne lost seventeen children, and Olivia Colman achieves incredible pathos in her portrayal of the monarch in the midst of the absurdity of the court. When Sarah is forced to reckon with the consequences of her envy, Rachel Weisz brilliantly depicts an unrepentant woman who has lost the only life she has known. As Emma Stone’s Abigail absorbs the manipulative mentality of the court, she transitions from wishing to better herself to harming others in a way that evokes pity for the other two women who grew up in such an environment.
If anyone is unfamiliar with the British history that forms the basic plot points of the story, the fantastic compiled score hints at the eventual outcome. Didascalies, a minimalist work by Luc Ferrari consisting of only two pitches occurs at two crucial moments, linking the characters who most deserve one another. Messiaen’s La Nativité features prominently whenever Queen Anne makes a decision that changes her relationship with her two ladies in waiting, usually because she believes she is the center of the universe. As a means of suggesting the one character who is gradually falling out of favour, three increasingly ominous organ pieces by J. S. Bach, who is notably different from the other composers, serve as underscoring for significant events affecting her.
There’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy, and The Favourite walks both sides of it, acknowledging the absurdism of the decadent British court and its cruelty while not shying away from the destruction wrought by both.
Personal Recommendation: A
Content advisory: Several sex scenes (mostly out of frame), nudity, harsh obscenities, gruesome aftermath of an injury, animal cruelty, and abusive behavior throughout. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment