The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, brings a modern edge to the traditional costume drama, about power and influence that rests on constantly shifting sands, and the role of women in court intrigues. It takes place in the early 18th century where, in the middle of a costly and seemingly never-ending war with France, England is ruled by the mercurial Queen Anne.
History, particularly within the political sphere, is dominated by men. Kings have a cadre of male advisors, jockeying for favor and position as they carry out their (supposedly) uniquely masculine duties. The Favourite defies this, depicting a royal court that is undeniably controlled by women, and the various ambitions and manipulations of the ladies closest to the queen are on center stage.
In this world, women have the monarch’s ear, and men frequently find themselves on the outside looking in, utterly dependent on their female allies to promote their agendas. How rare and how delicious is it to see a male political figure rendered petulant and helpless, by their lack of access to ruler for no other reason than their gender?
In their places are Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (and yes, one of Winston’s ancestors) and her impoverished cousin Abigail. Sarah is Queen Anne’s oldest friend and principal manipulator. She is brutally honest, which somehow gives her a veneer of trustworthiness — when she makes comments, their veracity is not questioned, because it is assumed that she would be incapable of holding back the truth.
Sarah is alternately distant and affectionate with the queen — she withholds and rations out her love, saving it for the moments when it is most needed. Cold, calculating, and supremely confident in her ability to wield power, she is as far from a traditionally demure wife as it is possible to get. We only see her husband in one scene, as he spends the majority of the film away at the war front, and even then she is telling him what to do. If there was ever a time when Sarah Churchill felt it necessary to bend to the will of the men in her life, it has long since passed.
Within the constraints of court life, she takes on a traditionally masculine role. She is costumed elegantly but practically, with few delicate flourishes or hints of softness; she frequently goes shooting and wears trousers while doing so. Sarah has influence with the political elite, allowing her entry into the public sphere traditionally denied to women. Her demeanor with the queen is sexually aggressive, the confident posture of an arrogant lover secure in the knowledge that they have the upper hand because their partner is more emotionally invested.
This is a perfect fit for Rachel Weisz, whose cunningly mischievous smirk has never been put to better use than it is here. She is clever, dominant, and brings a certain wry sense of humor to her character’s abrasiveness. Yet there are touches of vulnerability: when she overplays her hand and exposes a weakness, or when she underestimates the depth and complexity of her own feelings for the queen. It’s one of Weisz’s strongest and most multi-faceted roles.
Her natural foil is Abigail, a young ambitious gentlewoman who has found herself in reduced circumstances and is desperate to claw her way into a place of great prominence. The two characters seem to represent a depiction of traditionally masculine and feminine power. Sarah steamrolls and bullies; Abigail flatters and gently suggests things. Both are effective in different ways, and serve as an extension of their unique relationship with the queen.
Abigail presents herself as a soft, delicate innocent (despite what we learn about her checkered past in private moments), a naive and hard-done-by maiden deserving of nothing but sympathy and Christian charity. But this veneer belies an edge of steel and remorselessness born of a finely tuned instinct for self-preservation. Whereas Sarah seems motivated by the pursuit of power for its own sake, Abigail desires security above all else. She has seen how quickly one can fall from grace, and accordingly seeks the relative safety of a position at the queen’s side.
Her rise at court is meteoric. While she begins as a common housemaid, she takes advantage of her cousin’s sense of familial duty to become a lady’s maid. From there, she is able to engineer seemingly serendipitous situations that allow her access to the queen. Abigail uses kindness as a weapon, showing the queen the good-natured affection that Sarah so rarely bestowed, and cultivating an atmosphere of genuine friendship that disguises her self-interested machinations. Queen Anne responds immediately to this gentler approach, giving Abigail a chance at challenging Sarah’s favored position.
The role of Abigail forces Emma Stone to stretch herself much further than we’ve seen before. Her Abigail is an enigma, with kindness and flattery heaped upon a layer of cold ambition, desperation, and sometimes even cruelty. But since almost every one of her actions in the film seems designed to manipulate others into doing or believing something, we’re never sure if we’re witnessing the real Abigail or merely a role she’s playing.
Finally we come to the third point in this complicated love triangle, Queen Anne herself, the character in the film who technically speaking has all the power, yet seems to have none at all. She is a tremendously sad character, a woman who seems to be physically smothered by grief. Queen Anne lost her husband and every single one of her thirteen children, in whose honor she keeps a rather macabre collection of rabbits named for each of her lost children.
Olivia Colman brings her to life like no one else would be able to: as a profoundly lonely woman of intense contradictions, whose imperiousness is tempered by a deep sense of melancholy. She’s unstable but more perceptive than she looks; a natural follower bred to rule. Even with all her flaws, she’s still unmistakably the monarch, imbued with an unknowable quality that gives her the power that everyone else in the film is chasing after. Colman is every inch a beautiful, erratic hot mess of a queen.
The Favourite is blessed with a trio of supremely talent actresses to lead it, but its high quality goes beyond that. A strong cast of men, led by the rarely better Nicholas Hoult, happily take a backseat to their female costars and support them admirably.
The screenplay is well-paced and clever, with surprising moments of humor accompanying genuine poignancy. As a director, Yorgos Lanthimos’s work can often be a bit divisive, but The Favourite maintains his offbeat sensibility and slightly sinister charm, while also being one of his most accessible and narratively satisfying films to date.