Surviving relatives of Queen Anne of Stuart will likely not be pleased with her portrayal in Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film, The Favourite. Though relatively popular in her day and tasked with negotiating some of England’s more troubling political times — the religious divisions after the death of William and Mary, the War of the Spanish Succession, the evolving power of Parliament, the unification with Scotland — Anne is nonetheless most remembered for her failings. She ended the Stuart line by producing no heirs, and she suffered throughout her short reign from gout, obesity and acute depression after 17 children were stillborn or died in infancy.
Lanthimos uses the queen’s sufferings and the psychological instability they engender to drive the plot of the film and to put Anne (wonderfully played by Olivia Colman) at the center of a court which is quite clearly beyond her control. The action is set late in Anne’s reign and involves mainly the contest at court between Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (an amazing Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin from a formerly noble family who arrives at court seeking a job, but eventually becomes a rival to Sarah for the Queen’s favor and (ahem) attentions.
As with most of Lanthimos’ work, The Favourite really defies category. Though the historical setting is inseparable from the narrative of the film, to call this a historical drama would clearly be wrong — the choreography, the foul-mouthed modern insults and the mostly casual regard for historical accuracy would all disqualify it. To call it a comedy of manners would be closer, unless you consider the use of rape as a political tool, the punching of women in the face, or pushing them into ditches after dark unmannerly. To imagine a lighter-handed Pasolini setting his lurid critiques of church tradition and the Italian upper classes in the British court of the early 18th century might be just as accurate a comparison.
Rivalry and the devious tactics used in its service are the real meat of Lanthimos’ film, and he is not shy in using the raw and the grotesque to illustrate them. Underneath the duck races, fruit peltings and hilariously extravagant dance parties at court, a certain type of refined savagery lurks. Lanthimos clearly likes this contrast, and he relishes portraying the bold and selfish use of social and political power and understands the grudging fascination we have for the Machiavellian courtiers who employ it artfully.
The triumvirate of actresses at the head of this film carry out his mission well, and all have quite rightly already been awarded, nominated or mentioned for many of the most prestigious acting awards this year. No wonder — they are all terrifically vicious and sarcastic, and their work as an ensemble is first rate.
Fans of soundtracks filled with creaking floors and clattering hooves will find much to appreciate here — to heighten the tension and claustrophobia, Lanthimos keeps most of the action inside the palace chambers and passages, with little ambient lighting and much groaning wood. And when we need to be outside for a bit, it is almost always done on horseback. This interior-exterior contrast (which really makes the most of the filming location at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire) seems deliberate and reflects differences in the rules for each venue.
At court, the dialogue is cordial, if snarky, and the superficial manners are punctilious. Outside in the forest, courtships may begin with fistfights and kicks to the groin (filmed with handheld cameras and swirling motion) — precisely the way Abigail begins to woo her future husband, Lord Masham. Outdoors, ladies with titles can be poisoned, thrown and dragged by their horses, only to be found and rehabilitated by brothel keepers. Aspiring women, formerly ladies themselves, can be pushed into a ditch by minority politicians in ridiculous wigs.
There is shooting, lots of talk about shooting and spilled blood. Abigail thrives in the forest. After all, she is not just a symbolic outsider, but a real one, fallen from the nobility after being sold by her father to a “fat German with a thin cock” to settle a gambling debt. It is her knowledge of medicinal herbs which first gets her access to the queen, after she sneaks away to the woods to find the proper plants to make an effective poultice to soothe the queen’s gouty legs.
Adherents of whatever wave of feminism we are currently in will rightfully be able to say “we told you this” about the portrayals of women in The Favourite. They pretty much run things (the rich ones at least) but don’t get much credit for it, and even the women of status must still survive through the use of guile, opportunity and strategic sexuality.
But the film is very clear: Female characters all know this state of affairs and accept it not as a limitation, but more as a toolbox, one that is unmistakably unfair and unequal but nonetheless not without potential in the hands of a proper carpenter. There are, for Lanthimos’ part, very few conversations in the film between two men whose subject is not a woman. (It is hilariously appropriate that the first male actor listed in the closing credits is Paul Swaine, for his 30 second performance as “wanking man.”)
The line quoted in most reviews of this film occurs when Abigail has an unexpected nighttime visitor in the form of her future husband, Masham, upon whose arrival, she asks bluntly “Are you here to seduce me or to rape me?” When he responds indignantly that he is “a gentleman,” Abigail says casually “Oh, it’s rape then.” A sly piece of dialogue, to be sure, but Sarah’s line to Abigail on the trap-shooting range (using live pigeons, naturally) may be a better approximation of how we are supposed to view the female characters in a film about the British court in 1708.
Abigail asks her how she can stand the pettiness and lack of power at court, a situation which puts her husband — a notable army officer — in real danger. Sarah calmly replies, “There is a price to be paid, and I am willing to pay it.” Surviving relatives of Sarah Churchill, an actual Duchess of Marlborough, might well be pleased. Moviegoers almost certainly will be.
The Favourite is currently playing at Film Scene.