By Andrea Thompson
“The Favourite,” the latest film from Yorgos Lanthimos, begins in a way that is deceptively whimsical, even cute. As a servant removes Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) ceremonial crown and cape, she turns to her friend Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and asks if she lisped during her speech. Then she shows her the gorgeous estate she’s building for her. Weisz replies they must keep fighting the war with France. “We won!” Queen Anne protests. Weisz replies, “It’s not over. We must continue.” The queen responds with a surprised, “Oh. I did not know that.”
It’s amusing, but like in other films by the director, such whimsy often is merely a means of lowering our guard. Sure enough, the more we see of the brutal, meaningless world that is the British court, the less funny it gets. While a war rages and people are in need, aristocrats race ducks and throw tomatoes at other naked courtiers for sport. Few have noticed the war or the outside world in general, let alone that there are lives and the future of the country at stake. The queen also reveals herself to be a woman broken by loss, with 17 miscarrirages that have left her childless and made her a petulant child herself, as quick to slap her friend Sarah (who basically runs the queen’s life) as to demand sex from her.
In contrast, Abigail (Emma Stone) shows up in full ingenue mode. Her family used to be wealthy courtiers, but has fallen low, and now she’s come to see her cousin Sarah about getting a job. Sarah decides to give her one as a scullery maid, where she sleeps in close quarters with other maids, and sometimes gets chemical burns from the cleaning supplies. Her Cinderella status is also bolstered by her honest, compassionate nature, which gives her a big break of sorts. Abigail sees Queen Anne is suffering painful complications from gout and lies her way into the royal chambers so she can give her healing herbs. When Sarah discovers her lie, she orders her beaten, only to change her mind and raise Abigail’s status once she learns the herbs actually help. But this is no fairy tale, and the noblemen have designs on Abigail that are anything but noble. Abigail is deeply aware of this, her fall having led to some brutal realizations of just how vulnerable she is.
It all goes down with a touch of British whimsy, laced with a Yorgosian sense of doom, with a few traces of “All About Eve.” Anyone who stays in this environment is sure to be corrupted, and Abigail is alone, in a close vicinity to power and few options. She knows what awaits her if she falls out of favor or fails the wrong person. If she forgets, someone reminds her, halting a conversation to push her down a hill or fire an loaded gun right at her. When a nobleman suddenly enters Abigail’s room one night, she asks, “Have you come to seduce me or rape me?”
“I am a gentleman,” he replies.
“So rape then,” Abigail says resignedly.
Unlike many of his other films, Lanthimos did not write “The Favourite.” But needless to say, it still manages to capture much of his trademark dry wit. It’s not just more fun than many of his previous films, it’s wickedly delightful to see all three of these complex, ferocious women circle and play each other while men are mostly relegated to the sidelines. It’s also deeply funny…until it’s not, and we see how the concentration of such unchecked power corrupts and erodes everyone, who comes into contact with it, regardless of whether they’re insiders or outsiders.
That said, the final verdict seems to be remarkably complex. No one is exactly admirable, but it is surprisingly (and rather disappointingly) Abigail who begins to deteriorate after she manages to build a kind of stability. She proudly proclaims, “I am on my side,” but Lady Sarah manages to remain somewhat afloat even after she wanes. She is one of the only people in “The Favourite” who is concerned with more than herself. She is willing to keep fighting to win the war, even though the husband she cares for (or perhaps even loves?) will ride off to battle in it. She cares about the country and its future, even if she also wants to maintain her hold on power. Her power plays, along with others who are tasked with governing, may be disturbingly relevant, but an even darker truth is that at least the rulers portrayed are consistently interested in ruling and the ramifications of their actions. Can we say the same for the leaders we have now?