The Favourite finds the black heart of Yorgos Lanthimos alive and well, albeit in a very different type of film. The brain behind absurdist black comedies like Dogtooth and The Lobster has reallocated some of that grey matter to the costume drama, some of that acid sensibility to a set of real historical circumstances. These aren’t people negotiating a singles resort in order to avoid being transformed into animals, though the bestial side of his characters does shine through. They’re human beings in positions of power trying to negotiate the foreign policy of an entire country – human women, at that.
Oh, there are men in their early 18th century powdered wigs who have some kind of role to play in The Favourite. But they’re presented as twits and blowhards who are unskilled in the finer points of scheming and manipulation. For true masters of this craft, Lanthimos turns to two women, the two women vying for the ear of a third. That third happens to be the queen of England. Queen Anne, to be precise, who ruled from 1702 until her death in 1714.
Anne is played by Olivia Colman, and she’s a petulant child in pain. Anne spends much of her time in her chambers labouring under the agony of gout, and when she is well enough to come out, she frequently has meltdowns watching other people dance, play instruments and generally enjoy themselves. To be fair, though, Anne has also had an adulthood full of anguish, as she had given birth to 17 children who were miscarried, stillborn, or lost to disease before the age of two. She honours their memories through 17 pet rabbits she dotes on.
In Anne’s compromised state, her most trusted advisor all but runs the country. That’s Sarah Churchill, an ancestor of Winston and the duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz, who also starred in The Lobster). Sarah’s husband is a military man fighting the War of the Spanish Succession against the French, and she sees it as her patriotic duty to push the war effort further when others are satisfied with the symbolic victories achieved thus far. That involves doubling the land taxes, an initiative to which her political opponent, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), is staunchly opposed.
The task for any filmmaker making a costume drama is to distinguish it from your standard issue costume drama. Lanthimos does this within a minute of screen time. Firstly he introduces us to the level of vulgarity he’s planning to employ, which runs contrary to the genre’s typical preference for class and politeness. He does this by showing a man furtively masturbating in the carriage that’s bringing Abigail to court. When she’s pushed out of the carriage face first in the mud, it establishes the film’s general tone quite effectively.
Formally, though, Lanthimos wants this to look and move differently, again in defiance of the genre’s norms. As if acknowledging his own warped sensibilities, Lanthimos shoots the action through a fish eye lens on a number of occasions, bowing the straight lines into wicked curves. DP Robby Ryan’s camera also moves regularly, most notably in a recurring technique of quickly swivelling from one side of the screen to the other to follow an actor crossing the set, almost like a swish pan. It becomes a signature of the film’s appearance and makes for an invigorating bit of discord with the award-worthy costuming and set design.
The script, by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, races forward on a series of schemes and episodes of one-upsmanship – or perhaps, one-upswomanship. Cleverness abounds within the constraints of the actual historical record, though many of the episodes are fictitious or the result of speculation. Animals, insults, and bodily fluids all make regular appearances. We get both what feels like true insight into the process of governing, including its formalities and public faces, and the type of intimate squabbling and back-stabbing that reminds us that it’s just base human beings who occupy these ornate outfits. It’s a fine balancing act.
Where Lanthimos is truly pushing boundaries, though, is in his portrayal of the three women at the centre of the film. Whether he’s pushing the boundaries in the right direction is open to discussion. There is an obvious surface feminism to The Favourite, as the only truly powerful characters we see – both in terms of influence and in terms of actual title – are women. The men try in their way, but they come off as rank amateurs. The main three women, though, are so wicked in their methods, so devious in their plotting, that their obvious intelligence feels tainted by a malevolence so profound, it might be biologically ingrained. And it’s not an affliction unique to these three. Even the scullery maids treat each other with casual toxicity.
The women played by Colman, Weisz and Stone certainly satisfy our modern demand for “strong female characters,” as they’ve got agency coming out the wazoo. Davis and McNamara have also helped correct a larger cinematic imbalance by writing three of the year’s juiciest roles for these three superlative actresses, who are being feted left and right with richly deserved year-end awards. But all that juice leaves them without any humanity. It may be problematic that Lanthimos’ most misanthropic film is the one that studies the inner workings of the female mind.