Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writers: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Here in the UK, we love costume dramas. From the sweeping romance of Pride and Prejudice to the majestic grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia to the picturesque elegance of A Room with a View to the refined theatricality of Olivier’s Henry V, historical period dramas have long been a staple of British cinema and television. They remain as popular as ever with such recent hits as Downton Abbey, Peaky Blinders and Poldark finding tremendous success on the small screen. Audiences continue to be drawn in by these films and programmes for the resplendent sets and lavish costumes, the melodramatic stories and illustrious characters, and also for their nostalgic idealisation of the past. I bring this up because Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite breaks just about every convention a costume drama is supposed to follow. The film doesn’t look beautiful or vibrant; it looks murky and ugly. The characters aren’t noble and graceful; they’re nasty and unseemly. And the story definitely isn’t romantic or nostalgic; it’s surreal, tragic and completely contemporary. The Favourite is everything that a costume drama isn’t supposed to be and it is one of the best films of 2018.
The film is set in 18th century England during the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), the last of the Stuarts and one of Britain’s lesser-known monarchs. The country is at war with France but the ruler leading them isn’t the exemplar of strength and wisdom that a queen is supposed to be, she is an overgrown child plagued by gout and depression. As her courtiers exasperatingly compete for her attention, it becomes clear that the only person who has the queen’s ear is her favourite Lady Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Sarah is cunning, ruthless and steadfastly loyal and dedicated to her queen (and lover) to the point that she refuses to indulge her with flattery or delusion. Anne appears in one scene having made herself up for an important meeting and Lady Sarah tells her bluntly and tactlessly that the make up makes her look like a badger. For the most part Queen Anne has no contact on the outside world which means that her decisions and in turn the fate of the thousands of people under her domain, are determined by whims which depend largely on whoever is allowed to speak to her and who she happens to feel partial towards. As the arbiter of who is and isn’t allowed to speak to the Queen, Lady Sarah is basically the country’s de facto ruler and she uses her influence to ensure that the war against France as led by her husband John Churchill (Mark Gatiss) is allowed to continue.
Following the example set by Nigel Hawthorne in The Madness of King George (who in real life wouldn’t rule for another half century), Colman deliver a tour-de-force performance as an outrageously erratic ruler, playing her as both a subject of hilarious ridicule and heartbreaking pathos. We get the sense that Anne doesn’t have any real understanding of the affairs of the state and tends to be rather petulant when called upon to actually fulfil her duties to the crown: “It’s my state” she declares when Lady Sarah’s attentions are drawn to matters of national concern, “I am the business of state!” She is both the most and the least essential person in her own government; she is completely irrelevant when it comes to understanding and resolving the country’s many problems yet the fates of every man, woman and child who will be affected by these policies are entirely in her hands. It is when she is at her most insecure that she feels compelled to assert her status and this can happen at the most random times, such as in her response to Lady Sarah’s dismissal of her badger-like make up where she orders a passing page to look at her only to hysterically rebuke him for doing so. Yet, for all her power and malice, Anne is ultimately a wretched, pitiable figure; one who is trapped in a role she never chose and is grieving the loss of 17 children.
Yet the film isn’t just interested in exploring the warped emotional psyche of a queen who is apt to eat cake until she vomits, but also in the ways her subjects try to indulge, please and control their ruler. Winning the war against France depends on more than raising taxes, securing resources and planning strategies, it also depend on befriending the 17 rabbits that the Queen keeps as surrogates for her children. This is the political landscape that Abigail (Emma Stone), Lady Sarah’s distant cousin, enters as she stumbles off her carriage and falls face first into the mud. A scullery maid whose own father gambled her away, Abigail seeks out her cousin in search of employment and finds it in the palace kitchens, but she really wants above all else is to escape her poverty and ascend to the status she has always desired. Thus she sets her sights on the Queen and worms her way into Anne’s confidence (and bed) by offering her comfort and honey where Lady Sarah would only offer harshness and bile. This isn’t to say that Abigail is kind and earnest where Lady Sarah is cruel and unfeeling though, far from it. Abigail soon proves that she has the same knack for deceit, guile and malice as her cousin, but that she can mask it all with the artifice of a pretty face and large, bright, blue eyes.
In a sense The Favourite is less about Queen Anne than it about the competition between Abigail and Lady Sarah to win her affection and their bitter rivalry is as deliciously vicious as anything in All About Eve or Dangerous Liaisons. Much of this is about power and there is a clear difference between what the two women vie for with their ambitions; Lady Sarah has a cause she is trying to serve (or claims to anyway) for the betterment of her Queen, country and people whereas Abigail is looking out only for herself and cares not who she has to destroy to secure her status. Love comes into it as well as one mistress loves her Queen in the way she wants to be loved whilst the other loves her in the way she feels she needs to be loved. In this triumvirate’s love triangle the film presents the Queen with a choice between the comfort and sweetness of flattery and compliance or the surety and authenticity of candour and tough love, neither of which will give her the unconditional, pure, childlike adoration that she has always craved. The film is brutal in its depiction of how lonely these characters all are in their own ways and allows us to appreciate that feeling all the more by filming the scenes through a fish-eye lens, which has the effect of enhancing the inhospitable voids that overwhelm the spaces that these small characters occupy.
The fish-eye lens also has the effect of wildly distorting the shape of the world in bizarre, dream-like ways which is quite fitting for a film as intense and surreal as this. Disproportionately wide views of the rooms and their warped corners don’t just emphasise the vast gulf of space that they contain, the walls look severe and imposing as if they’re confining these characters and threatening to close further and further in until you cannot breathe from the suffocation. The disconnection from the outside world feels all the more clear-cut and there is a definite sense that all of these characters are prisoners of their stations and circumstances and are living a never-ending claustrophobic nightmare. The film feels bizarre and unreal in the way that The Draughtsman’s Contract does and it feels cheekily modern in the way that Love & Friendship does. There is something wonderfully 21st century about the way that the three central women are all pared down, complex and sympathetic figures, even when they’re being funny, while the men who surround them are all flamboyantly decorated caricatures. The brilliance of The Favourite is that it employs its strange and anachronistic tone to better let us appreciate the abject, agonising humanity of its three fascinating and impeccably portrayed leading ladies.