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Personal rivalries become political in 'The Favourite'

film review

"The Favourite" follows scullery maid Abigail and Lady Sarah Marlborough as they compete for Queen Anne's affections.
"The Favourite" follows scullery maid Abigail and Lady Sarah Marlborough as they compete for Queen Anne's affections.

Director and auteur Yorgos Lanthimos has captured the attention of critics for his audaciously peculiar imagery and unorthodox storytelling. His repertoire includes “Dogtooth,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” and “The Lobster,” films that have split the opinion of viewers. Some call his work clinical and unrelatable, while others praise it as fresh and iconoclastic. 

His latest film “The Favourite” is a gripping and cynical period drama, oozing with satire, that centers around the political and social affairs of post-Elizabethan England during the War of Spanish Succession. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is ridden with a crippling case of gout and an uncertainty in her capabilities as the head of state. Daughter of a disgraced aristocrat and scullery maid, Abigail (Emma Stone), wishes to rise through the ranks and establish herself as Queen Anne's “favourite,” while Lady Sarah Marlborough, (Rachel Weisz) the Queen’s furtive lover and political puppeteer — sorry, “adviser” — attempts to stave off Abigail to remain in good favor with the Queen. Whether parliament belongs to the Whigs or Tories lies entirely in the hands of the monarch, and the two rivals compete as Anne's lovers for political and social influence. 

The film’s trailer does not reveal much more than a heated rivalry between Stone and Weisz and sexual tension between Colman and Stone’s characters. Yet, critics have heralded “The Favourite” as making waves for lesbian representation long before its release — some even (tactlessly) labeling it as the first “lesbian-themed” film predicted to make waves at the Oscars. 

“The Favourite” doesn’t do much more than “Call Me by Your Name” did in representing LGBTQ+ centered relationships, but it does a fair job of considering sexuality as political and social tool. Female relationships are depicted on screen, but those relationships are a result of a leverage of power. It lacks a complex exploration and understanding of lesbian relationships to qualify it expressly as queer representation — there is work to be done yet — but, in its defense, that isn’t entirely the aim of the film. 

Rather, we have spectacular performances from the robust trio that is Weisz, Stone and Colman. Weisz and Colman are no strangers to Lanthimos’ bizarre world, having starred in his first English-language film, “The Lobster.” Although the style of the two films are glaringly similar, particularly in their deadpan (a term Lanthimos is not fond of) delivery at times, knack for subverting the ordinary and their score, the demands of the roles are exceedingly disparate. 

Weisz and Stone’s characters make for fierce rivals, manipulating not only each other for the Queen’s good graces, but also parliament to their advantage. Poisoning does not fall outside their range of acceptable revenge tactics and Weisz’s foul-mouthed duchess somehow manages to offer a contemporary spin to the centuries-old subject matter. Stone delivers a controlled take on Abigail’s character transformation — her character evolving from a pitiable young ingénue to a Machiavellian rogue, bordering psychopathy. 

The most stunning performance is undoubtedly Colman’s Queen Anne. Colman portrays the sickly Queen with convincing nuance. Her sadness, her loneliness and her anxieties are met with an overwhelming sympathy, perhaps not from those around her, but certainly from the audience. She maintains a mercurial temperament and easily transmutes between the insecure “Mrs. Morley” to a ruthless and bitter monarch. It is not long before a gutting realization arises: Queen Anne is the most powerful person in the commonwealth, and yet she is utterly alone, ridiculed and manipulated by parliament, and never truly loved by anyone, including Abigail and Sarah. 

Not only are the performances a triumph, but the cinematography is equally as breathtaking. Baroque portraits become the wide shots that routinely mark scene changes and the set is texturally opulent, emblazoned with delicate rocaille detailing. Lanthimos is unafraid to experiment with the camera: dizzying (and sometimes irritating) camera movements, pronounced by sharp 180 degree rotations, and shots so wide that you can see across the expanse of a royal courtyard, punctuate the smoother tracking shots. The score, characterized by staccato violin, distracts at times, but serves as the perfect accompaniment to more tense scenes. 

Lanthimos does not venture to make an immaculate portrait of 17th century court life with “The Favourite.” He flavors uptight political affairs with a few spoonfuls of striking peculiarity and a dash of the macabre. Lord and Lady Marlborough engage in what can scarcely be called breakdancing during a ball, evoking jealousy from her highness. Tomatoes repeatedly strike an entirely nude man in a wig as he laughs and dodges the jeering courtiers — a ridiculous and uncomfortable interjection to Abigail’s iciness. 

Many of Sarah and Abigail’s disputes are carried out on the royal hunting grounds, culminating in a jarring shot of blood splattering Sarah’s face when Abigail strikes down a bird. It is Lanthimos’ flair for the eccentric and clever sense for disrupting beauty that garners him acclaim from critics, and the title “master of surrealism,” only next to the likes of Bunuel, Dalí and Lynch. 

Some call “The Favourite” anti-war, others find it to be a criticism of the monarchy. The film isn’t really either of those things. What use is another film that pokes at an antiquated European style of governance? We already have the tragically funny “Marie Antoinette,” and Cate Blanchett is splendidly somber in “Elizabeth.” Rather, “The Favourite” can be easily construed as a nod to the current political climate. Conniving politicians, an incapable sovereign and divided political factions seem all too familiar. The men in parliament are incompetent and the head of state is easily swayed by external influences. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. 

Like his previous films, “The Favourite” is subject to Lanthimos’ manufactured human experiments. Much like “The Lobster,” Lanthimos confines high concentrations of pretty standard human desires — companionship, survival and power — which act as catalysts when mixed into his highly pressurized settings. The interaction of each element creates a self-amplifying chain of reactions which have no desire to equilibrate as the events unfold. Lanthimos loves extremes and he pushes the bounds of our darkest tendencies and subverts our conventions with a twisted delight that is all too alluring. 

Even so, it is debatable whether the setting and the subject matter were the best vehicles for conveying Lanthimos’ preoccupations. Yes, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script rested entirely in his forte, but how many films about white aristocrats in pompous costumes, who parade around their lavish lifestyles and moan about long-forgotten wars, do we really need? Queen Anne was such a diminutive moment in English succession — a fact Colman manages to make captivatingly clear — that it calls to question why more pertinent stories aren’t being told in its stead. So many still require a voice and many marginalized groups are still massively underemployed in Hollywood. Moreover, a jab at a long-dated monarchy does not seem like a particularly innovative way to criticize current political machinations. 

But “The Favourite” is entertaining. It has the trappings of an excellent film: sharp, disturbing, hilarious. The last few years have been inundated with politically charged films, and despite some shortcomings, “The Favourite” still manages to stand out from the rest. In its two hours, the film weaves an impressive and prophetic tapestry, not once losing its intrigue. Lanthimos’ latest is a work of art — a testament to his skill and style as a director — and, most importantly, so much fun to watch.