Spotlight: “The Favourite” Lights Up the Screen

By Karen Frost

The movie “The Favourite” can be described in one word: compelling. It’s a period piece, a comedy, and most of all, it is a character study of three women trying to fulfill three very different personal goals in the 1700s. Radically different from popcorn pieces like “La La Land” or dramas like “Disobedience,” “The Favourite” straddles the intersection of several genres and amazingly, does all of them well. Although the movie won’t be for everyone (some of the creative choices in particular are so unusual as to have a jarring feeling), history buffs and viewers interested in movies with strong female leads will find “The Favourite” well worth their time. We here at tello loved it, and we wholeheartedly agree with all the rave reviews the film has received. More of this please, Hollywood!

“The Favourite” is set in England in the early 1700s at the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Anne would seem to be an unusual focal point given that historians often paint her as dim witted and unmemorable apart from her morbid obesity, but the tightly woven story centers on (no spoiler here) the competition between Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the first Duchess of Marlborough, and her cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) to be Anne’s primary influencer (and in this movie, bedfellow). While Stone may receive a modicum more screen time than the other two, this movie really has three protagonists, all of whom are compelling in their own way. “The Favourite” is an actor’s movie, which is to say that while the plot is interesting, really it is the dialogue and the emotions expressed by the actors that set it apart from its peers. Indeed, “The Favourite” hits its highest notes when the camera lingers on its protagonists’ faces: Colman, Weisz, and Stone give a master class on minute shifts in facial expressions that resoundingly telegraph their meaning. It’s no accident that each of the actresses has won a Golden Globe (Weisz and Stone both have Oscars, Colman a BAFTA) and it’s hard to say who acts best in this movie, although a slight edge might go to Colman. All deserve Oscar nominations for “The Favourite,” at the least.

Like a Russian nesting doll, “The Favourite” manages to pack a significant amount of detail into two hours. Much of this comes in the form of filling out the personalities and motivations of its protagonists: Sarah is callous, controlling and manipulative, Anne is childlike and tempestuous, and Abigail is jaded and determined (to the point of scheming). The interplay of these personalities is the heart of the movie, and the screen crackles with electricity whenever one comes into contact with another. The plot is driven by external events, too, however.  Among “The Favourite”’s (vaguely accurate) historical elements, we see the ripple effects of England’s war with France as part of the War of Spanish Succession, led by Sarah’s husband the Duke of Malborough, and the ascendancy of the Whigs, led by Robert Harley, over the Tories. From a thematic standpoint, “The Favourite” is also about sex and power, as told from the point of view of women in the 18thcentury (for example, when Abigail queries whether she’s about to be raped, we remember just how little women were able to fend off unwanted advances in earlier times). Ideas layer on each other seamlessly, creating an incredibly robust and meaty setting for the movie. 

Although in real life there almost certainly was no sexual relationship between Anne and anyone but her husband, the ailing Prince George of Denmark, “The Favourite” uses the idea of Anne as a woman with a taste for other woman as an explanation for why she fell prey to manipulation and how Abigail was able to vie with Sarah for Anne’s favor (and to explain why, in real life, Sarah did in fact support accusations of lesbianism between Anne and Abigail). This slight tweak to history is a brilliant stroke. To label the movie some sort of a queer “love triangle” is misleading because that would imply the presence of love on two sides of the triangle, which is not the case. Instead, it is an excellent study of a manipulative triangle, in which sexual favors are a primary lever. What are the actual sexual orientations of the characters? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Was there any actual love between any of them, or was it all manipulation? The movie offers a suggestion, but in a way that allows for ambiguity of interpretation. In short, the effect is a movie in which acts of lesbianism are key to the plot, without sexual orientation itself being a focus, a refreshing approach. 

In “The Favourite,” director Yorgo Lanthimos and screenwriters Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis pull off an exceptional feat: presenting a movie in which the characters all have three-dimensional depth. All the primary characters are driven by complex emotions and motivations that transcend labeling as merely “good” or “bad.” While they engage in manipulative behaviors, the film is sympathetic towards them. Lanthimos' style is omnipresent in this film. His love of fish eye lenses, for example, stands out in shots of rooms in Queen Anne’s palace. The script snaps with crisp dialogue and jokes that land as intended. It’s remarkable that what otherwise could have been a heavy political drama about court maneuverings is instead a boisterous dark comedy. Additional kudos to costume designer Sandy Powell, who created wonderful costumes for all the characters but especially Sarah, who looks positively dashing in pants, a frock coat and a tricorn hat.   

The final thoughts below reference the film’s conclusion and therefore include spoilers. Do not continue reading if you don’t want to be spoiled.

 

 

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From a messaging/thematic perspective, “The Favourite” reaches an astounding full circle at its end, when Sarah’s bitter words come crashing down on Abigail: “We are playing two different games.” This is because while Abigail was playing a self-centered game to improve her social standing and prevent herself from ever having to return to the state of semi-prostitution that haunted her teenage years, Sarah was playing shadow ruler, attempting to control the mercurial Anne for what she saw as the betterment of the kingdom and her Tory allies. Sarah’s banishment from court therefore left a void that Anne wasn’t entirely able to fill herself, nor Abigail willing or able to fill for her. More crushingly for Abigail, however, she realizes that she came back to where she started: the sexual plaything of a rotund master, once male, now female. All her machinations only brought her back to that which she hated most. For Abigail, the moral is “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” By playing Anne against Sarah, Abigail won her dearly sough position in court, but it cost part of her soul. While a sad ending for all, it is a powerful ending.