Nearly 24 hours after seeing "The Favourite", I am still unpacking it. There’s a lot to dissect, and I’ve found myself going back to it over and over again during the quiet moments of my day, replaying scenes and reciting dialogue and trying to wrap my head around what message it is sending its audience, both overtly and subliminally.
What I have so far boils down to this: women helping women works as long as both sides are getting something from the deal. In an age of “Time’s Up” and “Lean In”, we are no longer adverse to a strong female lead, though we are assured that it is from the bottom of our little hearts that we help one another, to further progress for the good of all womanhood.
Well, that kind of sisterhood doesn’t exist in "The Favourite". It features three very different women vying for power over the other. Each has a vice or two, mainly lying and conniving and being overall putridly devious, but they refuse to work as one, choosing instead to undermine and manipulate, regardless of the price. It’s a stunning, salacious, sharp look at female power dynamics that plays more like a modern satire than a stodgy period piece.
Sex is employed as a weapon that Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) know how to wield more accurately than the guns they use to shoot pigeons from the sky. It is the early 18th century in England, and Lady Sarah is the right-hand woman to Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), a sickly monarch with the temperament of a five-year-old and no real handle on government affairs.
Her cousin Abigail arrives at the palace in search of work following her family’s fall from high society. She is quiet, eager to please and quick to observe the strange rapport between everyone at the palace. Sarah and the queen, childhood friends, are also lovers, a bond Sarah uses to ensure she has command of the queen’s political decisions, often taking the queen’s place in meetings and waging war on England’s many enemies.
Queen Anne may not have control of the country’s dealings, but she enjoys pitting cousin against cousin as she soon harbors a personal interest in Abigail, a threat Lady Sarah does not take lying down. The will and cunning of each woman is put to a test of wit and charm. After all, there can only be one favorite.
Do not go into this film thinking it is a historical biography of Queen Anne who reigned from 1702 until her death in 1714. There is no evidence she had a lesbian relationship with Sarah or anyone else due namely to her intense religious beliefs. As appealing a story as it may be, she also most likely did not own 17 pet rabbits that she allowed to roam freely in her bedchambers.
Does it really matter that the film isn’t completely accurate? No. Because what the film translates to contemporary audiences is Queen Anne’s boorish nature and the hostile landscape women had to traverse for any ounce of power. The many men in the film (Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn to name a few) flit on and off screen in ridiculous wigs, but there is only one spot for a woman in authority, and we can taste the rivalry brewing from the start.
Queen Anne was fickle and frail, afflicted by gout and other ailments that impaired her judgment in addition to the toll that 12 miscarriages and the death of 5 live children had on her psyche. Of all three performances, Colman’s is the most powerful. She doesn’t just deliver her lines convincingly; she uses her physicality to persuade us, to lure us into believing the veracity of every manic move she makes.
That isn’t to say Weisz and Stone don’t shine in their roles, because they most certainly do. The chemistry between all three leading ladies is electrifying to watch, and though I rarely condone a movie lengthening its runtime, I would have stayed another hour to watch them bewitch us on screen.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose previous film "The Lobster" confused the shell out of me, sets the tone of the film with curious, though brilliant, use of extreme wide-angle lenses and predominantly natural lighting. If Alejandro González Iñárritu and Wes Anderson co-directed a film together, it would most certainly have this same aesthetic. There isn’t ever a slow or dull moment, and Lanthimos isn’t afraid to break convention in a period piece. For once, there’s downright, chortling-to-yourself humor in a film set three hundred years ago.
As I said, I haven’t finished processing, and I wish I had more time to do so before releasing this review out into the interweb. My opinions and realizations about it change every hour, and I know there is plenty I am not reporting, but I would be remiss if I did not say this: go see this film. It’s worth the two hours, it’s worth the ticket price, and good lord, is it worth a butt-load of award nominations.