Love is a battlefield, as Pat Benatar once opined—a cliche usually used to illustrate the ways in which battered hearts are freely stacked like victims in an emotionally precarious game of Jenga, but one that can also convey how love and sex, though not necessarily mutually inclusive, are never neutral. Those acts and feelings are political. A kiss is never just a kiss, and in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, massaging someone’s leg, one person standing and the other on their knees, is not just a massage. It’s a gambit, its stakes suggesting that the personal and the political are inextricable from one another.
From a fiendishly barbed screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara (this is the first film of Lanthimos’s not co-written by him), The Favourite is about ailing, naïve, fussy Queen Anne (Olivia Colman)—ruler of Great Britain from 1702 to 1707—who acts like a wanton child (or is she treated like a child?) and submits most of her power and leadership duties to her “favourite,” Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). This is convenient for Lady Sarah, who uses this opportunity for political strategy, swaying the Queen’s Tory-like politics to her own Whiggian politics, despite the battles she must carry on in court regularly (particularly against Robert Harley, a Tory, played by Nicholas Hoult). Her role as the Queen’s right-hand woman is as emotionally exhausting as it is politically fulfilling; while pushing for higher land taxes in order to finance an ongoing war with France, she is expected to quell the Queen’s many insecurities and neuroses. When Sarah’s distant cousin, and former lady herself, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) lands on the steps of the palace, Abigail realizes she, too, can strategize to climb her way back to the top, even if it means pushing Sarah aside at all costs.
For Abigail, observant and gifted with a sardonicism weaponized as a survival tactic, that means mirroring Sarah, or what Sarah “should” be doing on a personal level with the Queen. Where Sarah is harsh, unapologetic and acidic in her evaluations of the Queen (Sarah tells her that she looks like a badger at one point), Abigail becomes soft, angelic and tender. She shapeshifts into a suck-up. Offered the opportunity by Harley to ascend the court in other ways, she eschews this, her slyness a necessary asset for self-preservation, versatile in her ability to use other people (including men) as pawns.
Sarah, not infrequently regaled in costumery that suggests androgyny (juxtaposed against the more explicit femininity of Abigail’s wardrobe), is hard handed with Queen Anne because she needs to be, she might tell herself. Someone has to run things around here. Sarah’s backhanded compliments to and negging of the Queen shake the oft wheelchair bound crown wearer. But it is worth it, perhaps, for the Queen when Sarah sheds her armor and reveals her more amorous side. They exchange declarations of love and some amorphous form of commitment, but Sarah is more reticent, always including her love for the country in these discussions. The Queen frowns, understandably.
What a frown she has. The makeup would never be so thick as to veil the frustration the Queen has about these things, the jockeying for her affection and for power. She has so much power and is underestimated and treated like a bizarre idol of status and opportunity between Sarah and Abigail. Colman is terrific at expressing the gradual failure of the Queen’s body, the helplessness and, in the end, sad recognition that she does not know how to love or what it means to be truly loved. Colman’s face conveys a broken-hearted realization that love is never not political. Love is never pure.
Abstractly, The Favourite could be considered the third in a loose trilogy we might be inclined to call “What I Did for Love,”, to crib a song, and an assertion, from A Chorus Line. The Lobster, Lanthimos’s first English language film, is not merely about compulsory (heterosexual) coupling, but also unpacks the lengths people will go to secure affirmation and intimacy. Lanthimos suggests that those rules and tests of commitment transcend dystopia. Last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer disrupts a family unit to test its bonds and its structure, as if patriarchal terrorism has come back to haunt and bite Colin Farrell’s doctor in the ass, Teorema style. And in The Favourite, what love means, what its implications are and how those utilities are prioritized, Lanthimos contextualizes in a place and time where status and influence are especially prized. Like winning a skirmish. It’s not that Sarah and Abigail don’t love the Queen. Platitudes and sex, however ultimately transactional, do have a root in a perhaps absurd commitment and admiration—and in possibly something truly emotional. The allure of The Favourite is not only in its whip-smart black-hearted humor, or in its competitions, but is in watching these women reconcile with the relationships love, sex and power have with one another.
Weisz and Stone are well-equipped as foils, to try to displace the other from their platforms with regard to the Queen’s gaze, and it is within their precision in comic timing, calculation (the film features the best hand job scene since The Master) and volleying passions that the film is able to ground their presences in the same kind of melancholy resignation as Anne’s. Sarah’s love for the Queen is fundamentally embedded in her love for Great Britain; she must be, in some regards, a disciplinarian in order to maintain its health when it is in conflict with France. Abigail’s love for the Queen is entrenched in her yearning for the privileged life she once lived as a Lady, where class status could let you love luxuriously. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan uses fisheye and wide angle lenses, bending the interior architecture like the women’s allegiances and truths, to unsettling effect.
Men are to be made a mockery of in Lanthimos’s work, from the lampooning of the father in Sacred Deer to the fragility of the male ego here. It feels all the more satisfying that men like Harley (though played with panache by Hoult), husband-for-Abigail-to-be Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) and Sidney Godolphin (James Smith) are rendered borderline incompetent, and rarely on the level of acuity as Sarah and Abigail. Men exist more as a context than as subject; several frank inferences are made regarding the ways men are manipulators or rapists, allegations though presented as bleakly self-deprecating that do an astonishing job illustrating how abusive men, and implicitly trauma, shape women and how women negotiate power.
Arguably, Queen Anne is, at heart, an optimist, living in a world in which affection and vulnerability can be depoliticized, not tied to class or royalty or nationhood. This detachment from the reality of the varying power dynamics and spectacles around her and her court—and her forced confrontation with the nature of the quasi-love triangle—gives The Favourite its beating broken heart. Rather than being concerned with historical authenticity (Sandy Powell’s costumes are gorgeously anachronistic), Lanthimos gestures towards an emotional reality that posits the lover and the loved as soldiers, capable of being a casualty in what each party believes is a greater cause. What a blazing and burning feat of melodrama.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writers: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Starring: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, Mark Gatiss
Release Date: November 23, 2018