by Ken Bakely
Out of the many great things in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, perhaps one of the best is its gloriously unhinged displays of power’s transitory nature; the irony of how the rigorous structures that drive society are often themselves composed by individuals who are playing out their far more anarchic pursuits of power simply to get there in the first place. Centered on Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), who assumed the British throne in the early 18th century, and the jockeying undertaken by cousins Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) and Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) to become her closest companions in the court, the film settles on the electric dynamics between these three women. They navigate a world dominated by assumptions of male power as the default, but they are in such a position where they seek to affect each other, without the input of third parties or external figures like the male government advisors or members of parliament, who are comic foils sliding in and out of the proceedings on a situational basis. Critically, this means that the characters’ conflicts exist from an angle that is solely that of the challenge itself, with little going in to how others would react to it. This is more outwardly reflected as well, to the point that the film positions their relationship as a love triangle, as well as a political squabble. A critical theme here is that nothing they do – from power scheming to sex – requires external consultation.
That the film is so transfixed on the ramifications of their fluid interpersonal development means that Lanthimos, working from a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, can extrapolate the social implications of the story as the most immediate subtext. The Favourite is always cognizant of where these characters are positioned in relation to what’s expected of them, and more importantly, that it’s from their own perspective as the people living within those strictures. It’s not so much applied to Colman’s Anne, who is presented as an ailing ruler worn down by illness and a lifetime of misfortunes, but is very much the driving force behind Abigail and Sarah’s efforts to gain her favor. The movie’s most spectacular moments simply allow us to appreciate the work of Colman, Stone, and Weisz, both as individual performers and a collective. Though both Abigail and Sarah begin in different places – Sarah as an established member of Anne’s inner circle, and Abigail as a maid who must work her way up – by the time Lanthimos sees them both on equal footing, in a push-pull for Anne’s complete approval, their machinations reach almost farcical heights. The struggle is vicious and nonstop, expanding from attempted character assassination to things that could be construed as outright attempted assassination, but it’s all firmly realized within the movie’s world, and the realms of these people.
What also helps is that every line and scene operates with tight precision, as the script’s acidic dialogue and comically one-upping twists make for a combination that’s arresting in the moment, and awe-inspiring in its spectacular mounting. There’s no mistaking that Abigail and Sarah’s efforts are gutting and destructive by film’s end, but it’s clear that they stand in stark contrast to the buffoonish male politicians who attempt to control Anne with delectations as obvious as their sloppy court wigs. The Favourite never quite reaches a point where everything comes together for a big narrative coup, and it’s actually stronger as a result. It keeps things peripheral, within the close and discomforting spatial boundaries that Lanthimos has found so much success with in his previous films. This is a much funnier film than something like his last effort, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and its characters are much more human, with recognizable propensities for jealousy, vengeance, and affection. Yet it all takes place under the same tendencies that render him such a fascinating artist. Even when the transgressions of his characters take place within the context of specific historical settings, they’re still attached to both larger philosophical devices and the sheer magnetism of their boldness.