In the cinema from 25th Jan – 7th Feb, Helen Tope reviews this week’s film, 10 times Oscar-nominated The Favourite.
A comedy of manners, The Favourite is smart, elegant and deliciously foul. Director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, Dogtooth) has form in creating absurdist worlds. Taking the formula of the costume drama, and upending it, our perceptions of the past are blown apart in this story.
We are witness to the final years of Queen Anne’s court. A monarch in poor health and no heir – she is, despite her status, utterly vulnerable to those on the make. Her favourite, Sarah, Lady Marlborough, is Anne’s representative in matters of state. A woman wrecked by grief, Anne is barely able to govern herself, let alone a country at war with France. Their relationship is closer than even those at court suspect. Sarah and Anne are lovers; Sarah giving Anne the affection she so desperately craves.
Their is a relationship of mutual benefit. Sarah uses her power to spearhead a war, with her husband Lord Marlborough leading the charge. Everything seems in perfect balance, until the arrival of Sarah’s cousin, Abigail. A former aristocrat fallen on hard times, Abigail is put to work in the kitchens. Her arrival sparks resentment among the servants. They play a cruel prank on the inexperienced help, and Abigail burns her hand. Sourcing a herbal tincture in the palace gardens, Abigail realises that this soothing blend will be perfect for alleviating the Queen’s ulcerated, gouty legs. Abigail gains favour and access to the Royal chambers. There is a new favourite.
Yorgos Lanthimos is entirely at home in this genre – the camera scans across gorgeous interiors and courtly vistas. The carefully-arranged flowers, the floor-to-ceiling tapestries – Yorgos gives them all a sense of scale and grandeur using a wide angle lens. We move through the palace in a dream-like state. It is only as the film progresses, that we realise this is not a dream, but a nightmare.
Lanthimos turns our gaze away from the beauty, and insists we lean in towards the horror. The 18th century is a sharply polarised universe. It may be tough at the top, but life at the bottom of the pecking order is bestial at best. The Favourite’s selling point is how it takes us into a world even more precariously balanced than our own. Every move by Abigail and Sarah must be considered from every angle. To become the favourite is the easy part; to stay in the Queen’s good graces – quite another set of skills are required.
The slide into poverty and ignominy is all too real a prospect. The elevation of the women – with extraordinary power and influence wielded by Lady Marlborough – is an illusion. Even the Queen’s authority – a thing that seems immovable – fades as her health deteriorates. Despite women being at the centre of this film, Yorgos wants us to be quite clear – this is no feminist paradise. Parliament is still a man’s business, and women’s bodies are not their own.
Lanthimos immerses us in the realities of Queen Anne’s world. Sound is used to startle – the guns fired during shooting practice boom like artillery. The fashion, sterling work by Sandy Powell, ranges from the tasteful to the ludicrous. Compare Lady Marlborough’s stylish garb to politician Robert Harley’s overblown wardrobe and wig. Here, the clothes really do make the man and the woman. The monochrome palette used for the court (Powell’s way of working a small budget), provides a neat counterpoint to the moral maze the characters find themselves in. Nothing is so simple as black and white.
A film of great complexity demands great performances, and the casting of Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz is inspired. Colman and Weisz’s drawing of the relationship between Queen Anne and Lady Marlborough goes beyond biography into something true, tender and thoroughly vicious. Their love for each other answers a mutual vulnerability – one yearns for affection, the other for power.
The insertion of an outsider doesn’t just make for dramatic tension. Abigail observes the Queen closely – what Anne wants, she will provide. Indeed, Anne does confide in Abigail with the eagerness of an acutely lonely person. In her room, sits a coterie of 17 rabbits. Abigail learns that they represent each of the Queen’s lost children. Colman’s ability to tap into the raw edges of grief is extraordinary. Colman’s performance has been given a lot of attention; it is the work of someone who has spent years building those credits, and gaining a serious level of experience. Colman’s skill is undeniable – but to British audiences – it should be no surprise.
Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone do a great job of showing us women operating outside the societal norms. Weisz, as Marlborough, pulls the strings of Anne’s government with ease. Cool, clever and confident, it is not hard to see why Anne’s attraction to her is so compelling.
As Abigail, Emma Stone digs into the reality of survival in the 18th century. Born an aristocrat, her gambling-hungry father loses the family’s fortune and position. Abigail has no option but to ply every connection she has. Her knowledge of how things work is a distinct advantage, as she flouts the rules and works her way into the heart of the monarchy. But for all their ability to work the system, both Sarah and Abigail are as much defined by it as the servants below stairs. Marlborough is never going to be one of the boys; running parliament and shaping world events. Abigail, as her star rises, becomes the over-styled court celebrity. But being the favourite, without the respect that Marlborough garnered, leaves her ultimately dissatisfied. In its resolution, The Favourite makes no moral comment. There is no need to, as this is an amoral universe. There is no benevolent force at work here, just violence, corruption and greed.
A darkly satiric masterpiece, The Favourite has so much to say about power – how it’s used and exploited – that it speaks to us in this moment, and will continue to do so. A head of state unfit to govern is not just a contemporary affliction.
While power continues to be abused by people who do not understand it, The Favourite will continue to be relevant. Judging by the circumstances we find ourselves in, The Favourite’s longevity is comfortably assured.