The Favorite (2018)
In retrospect, the byzantine social milieu of the early 18th-century court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is a good fit for the stylistic peccadilloes of Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos. Much of his prior work is marked by self-consciously stilted dialogue, staging, and direction that highlights and parodies social conventions, and delicately constructed layers of meaning, so the upper echelons of 1700s English society, with its rigid mores, labyrinthine allegiances, and ripe-for-ridicule fashions (Those wigs! Those ruffles!) suits him down to the ground — and should prove more attractive to less adventurous audiences who were put off by The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017).
Not that The Favorite isn’t adventurous. A tale of political and personal skullduggery, the film pits Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), advisor and secret lover to the Queen, against the impoverished but ambitious Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), newly arrived at court and hell-bent on improving her station in life by whatever means necessary.
The most promising angle to present itself is Queen Anne’s constant need for attention, reassurance, and affection, but Sarah is a canny operator, both political and personal. Other complications include the ongoing war against The Hated French being prosecuted by Sarah’s husband, the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), and the resultant domestic political furor over the cost of the clash, which results in Abigail being courted as a catspaw by Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford (Nicholas Hoult), who opposes the war and the land taxes that fund it.
All of which sounds as dull as ditchwater, lesbian love triangle aside, but The Favorite is no staid and stately costume drama. Working from a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Lanthimos has crafted a bawdy, bizarre, and deeply cynical black comedy of manners, highlighting the desperation of the characters and the absurdity of their society while never forgetting that this farce has a real human cost attached to it.
It’s an interesting companion piece to Adam McKay’s Vice, serendipitously released in Australia on the same day. Both films deal with Machiavellian maneuverings in the court of an idiot-monarch (and both are based on actual history), both take a dim view of the events of their narrative in particular, and of human nature in general, both are in the Oscar conversation — but of the two, The Favorite is easily the bolder, more outrageous, and more fun. Vice may boast a jowly Christian Bale as Dick Cheney and a nigh-perfect but, if we’re being honest, one-note Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, but it contains nothing as confronting and bleakly hilarious as Emma Stone giving a lethargic handjob to her new husband (Joe Alwyn) on their wedding night.
Yes, there’s a lot of sex in The Favorite, but the film views the act through the same jaundiced lens it views all human endeavor: corrupted by self-interest and rendered ludicrous by circumstance and intent. The film revels in contrasting the elegant and the ugly, generally using the latter to call into question the former. There are grand halls and stately rooms, acres of carefully manicured gardens, gorgeous oil paintings and objets d’art, beautiful clothes and beautiful people to fill them — and then there’s Emma Stone, La La Land (2016), spattered in mud and shit, Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener (2005), disfigured by a facial scar, Olivia Colman, Tyrannosaur (2011), being … well, just being Queen Anne, a wonderfully grotesque creation that’s repulsive and compelling in equal measure.
Still, she’s a product of her circumstances, and that’s part of the key to the film: all three principal characters are simply taking what power is available to them and using it as best they can. Anne’s chief function, when you boil it down, is to produce an heir — something she has spectacularly failed to do (a menagerie of rabbits stands in for her 17 dead children). Yet she’s still the Queen, and despite her childishness, her intractability, and her quicksilver moods, it’s a position with no small amount of clout — even if she’s frequently not sure what she’s supposed to be doing.
Sarah uses her influence on the Queen to steer the ship of state as best she can, acting in the interest of herself and her husband, yes, but also in England’s, trying to guide Anne towards decisions that are at the least as harmless as possible, calming the irritable monarch’s fouler moods either by flattery, gentle bullying, or simple sex.
And then there’s Abigail, who we learn was sold into effective sexual slavery by her destitute gambler father and is clearly determined to never be anyone’s whore again. Abigail is positioned as the film’s villain, more or less, but given what she’s endured and the abuses still heaped upon her (Sarah has her flogged at one point, while Harley simply shoves her down a hill to demonstrate his power over her at another), can we really blame her for her ruthless political maneuvering?
You go to war with the army you have, but these women don’t have armies (well, Anne does, technically, but that’s a) Marlborough’s lookout, and b) currently across the English channel dealing with barrages of French grapeshot). Instead, these women must use the tools afforded to them, carrying out a savage and clandestine war against a backdrop of effete masculine tomfoolery where having the fastest racing duck (not a metaphor) is a matter of pride and hocking soft fruit at a dancing, naked fat man is a fine afternoon’s entertainment. All the men in The Favorite are either outlandish buffoons, duplicitous bastards, or simply oblivious to the high stakes subterfuge going on right in front of them. It’s a nice bit of business, working subtly to keep our focus and our sympathies — if this film can be said to evoke such feelings — on our competing triumvirate.
Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick’s wry, dry, 1975 historical epic, is probably the closest cinematic point of comparison The Favorite has, although old Stanley was never as lewd as Lanthimos and his team, not even when he was making Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Still, they share the same jaded take on humanity and its ambitions, the same mistrust of wealth, privilege, and power, and the same reluctant fascination with all of the above. The Favorite is simply a stunningly good film, and although it’s inherently pessimistic worldview may not jibe with your own personal philosophies, its power is undeniable.
5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!
Reviewed by Travis Johnson