If there is any director that can be relied upon to make the court of an eighteenth century English queen into a bizarre and hilarious absurdist piece, then it is Yorgos Lanthimos. Following the horrifying, and equally humorous, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos returns to the fall festival season with all of the oddities that we have come to expect from him. This year, he has chosen the madness of a monarch and the world around her as his latest subject in The Favourite. The monarch of choice for the Greek surrealist is Queen Anne, whose reign over Great Britain lasted from 1702 until 1714, and who is often forgotten in discussions of England’s female rulers. While Elizabeth I has been immortalised on countless occasions in film, Anne has largely been ignored. Although, if you enter into Lanthimos’ decadent period piece with the expectations of a biopic, you will find yourself rather surprised; but perhaps not disappointed. Rather, The Favourite is best described as a devious tragicomedy – if it must belong to a genre – centred around women, the power dynamics that exist between them, and the eroticism they often share.
When you give yourself to a Lanthimos film, you surrender yourself completely to him – to his sardonic wit, his bleak blend of humour and tragedy, and his disdain for sentimentality. As one would anticipate, there are plenty of these trademark traits on display in The Favourite, and yet, there are traces of genuine care, and even occasional gentleness, scattered throughout Lanthimos’ vision of Anne’s court. While manipulation courses through the veins of almost every character, tenderness, too, and compassion present themselves here – though only for the briefest of moments. At the centre of The Favourite is a triptych of refreshingly complicated women, whose allegiances are as murky as their motivations, and whose verbal sparring is something that many of today’s politicians could only hope to emulate in their own debates and scrambles for power. This sapphic trio consists of an increasingly unstable Anne, – as whom Olivia Colman excels, having finally been given the opportunity to command the screen of a film – her confidant Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s comely cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone). At first, all appears to be edging towards Sarah’s favour. She enjoys affections with the Queen, and is close enough to her to be able to cast an influence over the politics of court – until Abigail appears, downtrodden and desperate, and begins to implement ambitions of her own, which extend far beyond serving as Sarah’s maid.
Stone relishes the role of Abigail, as she exploits her innocent exterior to weave her way into Anne’s inner-circle, and laments on the predatory nature of the men around her with the delivery of lines that are both hilarious and brimming with trauma. For Stone, this is a career-best performance, and it is a joy to watch her lose herself in such a deliciously ambiguous character – even when the full extent of her capacity for cruelty makes itself clear. Weisz’s Sarah, too, is excellent as she proves herself a worthy competitor for Abigail’s conniving but, equally, manages to maintain some genuine honesty in her relationship with Anne; which comes as a welcome surprise from Lanthimos’ usual apathy. In one scene, Sarah aims a rifle at Abigail without so much as flinching in hesitation. In another, she promises Anne that she would never tell her anything but the truth, in a manner so delicate that it must be authentic. Wrapped up right in the middle of Abigail and Sarah’s one-up-manship, of course, is Anne. As the ailing Queen, Colman carves a figure of amusement and, on more than one occasion, of tragedy. The seventeen bunnies, for example, that she dotes upon and allows to share her palace become far less funny once we learn that each one represents a child that she has lost. Wherever Colman is riotously ridiculous as Anne, who regularly throws tantrums at her servants and feigns unconsciousness to escape navigating difficult policies, she is also quietly sympathetic. All three leads savour each and every moment of their performances and, together along with Lanthimos, they craft a masterful tale of female agency in the political world and the relationships they form in the pursuit of power.
The Favourite is a complete joy – it offers a space in which women are allowed to control their own fates, to throw themselves into their desires with abandon, and it gives us a plethora of well-polished performances for us to indulge in. To see these three actresses at their very best face off against each other under any direction is a delight but to see it orchestrated by Lanthimos, with his affinity for the strange and the ironic, is an honour. Plunge yourself into the entanglements of a triad that derives its pleasure from the erotic as much as it does the political and allow the schemes of these women to wash over you.
by Hannah Ryan
Hannah lives in Cardiff and is into female protagonists, visually pleasing movies and Star Wars. Her favourite films include Pan’s Labyrinth, Casino Royale and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. She generally prefers dogs to people and you can find her talking endlessly about films at @_hannahryan on Twitter.