The Favourite (2018)
Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
In the early 18th century, Britain engages with France in war. All of that is unimportant because we are front and center in the court of the highly dysfunctional, depressed, and insecure Queen Anne. She is in the middle of a tug of war between the Whigs (who seek the war to continue until a victory is secured) and the Tories (who are tired of being taxed to fund a seemingly never-ending battle). Showing very little interest in all of these boring matters of state, Anne allows her longtime friend and confidante Lady Sarah Marlborough to handle them. Sarah is quite comfortable by the queen’s side and in her bed until her estranged cousin Abigail arrives. This wastrel finds a place as a scullery maid but wants to regain a position of import. Abigail cleverly listens and observes learning all she can about the court and in particular the specific whims of Anne. A power struggle begins between cousins, Sarah versus Abigail, a polite war that escalates quickly.
The Favourite is a film that left me thinking, without hesitation, “this is a masterpiece.” I am a rare fan of period pieces, particularly English historical ones. However, the lure of director Yorgos Lanthimos brought me to this one. His acidic humor has given us great films like Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. The promise of more of his particular style combined with the talents of the three actresses helming this production (Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Olivia Coleman) was enough to entice me to the theater with little argument. What I found was a profoundly complex comedy about depression and the nature of codependency. Overlooking the trimmings of the age, the story at the heart of The Favourite is both relevant for our modern political times and our personal experiences.
Queen Anne, played stunningly by Olivia Coleman, is a walking shambles of a human being. The only thing that keeps her going is the fact that she is the queen of England. She’s plagued by nighttime throbs of gout that have forced her to use either crutches or a wheelchair. Anne harbors an infection of sorrow and pain over the death of all seventeen of her children. She cannot even enjoy the simplest of sweets without her stomach going into fits forcing her to vomit it up. The combination of physical ailments and emotional ones has made every personal relationship she has a potentially dangerous one. Any person that gets into her good graces is going to have their lifeforce drained from them. Sarah appears to be managing this as well as anyone can, giving into Anne’s desires while using a stern hand to rebuke her honestly. The film, much to its benefit, never truly makes Sarah’s intentions clear. She’s been friends with Anne since they were little girls and keeps it real with the monarch. However, there is an ever-present unanswered question about what Sarah truly wants. The film makes it clear that no one at Court is there out of goodwill.
Sarah and Abigail prove to be proper foils for each other. Sarah is well versed in the political process, having been raised as a noble since birth. She dresses in a masculine manner after her husband leaves for the war, wearing pants and jackets, allowing her to slide into the realm of men without any question. Sarah can maneuver with ease when it comes to balancing the moodiness of the queen and the demands of Parliament. Abigail acts as a wrench in the gears practicing a more improvisational act to gain the affections of Anne. Abigail appeals to the emotions of Anne; her first gesturing is embracing an element of Anne’s life that Sarah rejects in the opening scene. Unlike Sarah, it is blatantly apparent to the audience that Abigail has a reason to manipulate the queen. She was lost by her father in a card game and spent years with an old man whom she worked to escape. Abigail tells a member of the court that she isn’t on anyone’s side except her own and that fate sometimes causes her side to coincide with another’s.
The Favourite keeps in tone with being a pitch black film as we would expect from Yorgos Lanthimos. He isn’t here to offer a happy ending, but rather an honest one. There’s no way these three characters, after the way they venomously manipulate and emotional torture each other, are going to see the light at the end of the tunnel. They orbit around a figure who is trapped in her neuroses and has been given near limitless power. There’s no real escape, and the hill they scale has no summit. Everything is the mire, and they are wallowing in it.