Movies

The Favourite Was Not Mine

This Oscar contender has everything. Plus, for some reason, fisheye!

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in The Favourite.
Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in The Favourite.
Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos’ seventh feature, The Favourite, was a movie I truly wanted to love. Even now, sitting down to write about it a week later, I’m trying in retrospect to make myself love it. Doesn’t it have everything: a trio of diamond-sharp performances from three of our greatest actresses? A savage script that’s equal parts transhistorical social satire and bitchy palace intrigue? A meticulously re-created 18th-century look, complete with powdered wigs and geometric topiary gardens?

Yes, The Favourite, based loosely on figures in the court of England’s Queen Anne, has all those things, and a lesbian love triangle to boot. Critics everywhere seem to be grooving on it, and maybe you will too. But though I found plenty in this film to admire, most notably a towering lead performance from Olivia Colman as the appetite-driven queen, I also confess to finding The Favourite, which runs only one minute over two hours, something of a long sit. It’s a film so replete with ostentatious Directingswish pans! Reverse dolly shots! The recurring use of a fisheye lens for no discernible reason!—that the story is sometimes hard to discern beneath the layers of crenellated fondant. If you find yourself wondering how to feel about the royal infighting, a blast of baroque court music (Handel, Purcell, Vivaldi) is always there to remind you that the aristocracy is being satirized.

Lanthimos’ past few features have been black comedies with strong absurdist elements, like The Lobster (2016), in which Colin Farrell plays a man looking for love in a dystopic world where those who fail to find mates after a set period of time are forcibly turned into animals. This director has a markedly perverse sense of humor, and he likes to create artificially cloistered universes where different rules apply. So the early 18th-century British court, where bored lords and ladies bet on duck races for fun and devise elaborate ruses to win the favor of the queen, is a natural habitat for him.

The Favourite’s first hour is its strongest, as we meet, in quick succession, the ailing and emotionally volatile queen (Colman), her preferred lady-in-waiting, Sarah (Rachel Weisz)—who’s also the wife of military commander Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss)—and her new servant Abigail (Emma Stone), a poor cousin of Sarah’s who arrives at the palace after her father gambles away her family’s estate. Abigail has the manners, and the unspoiled good looks, of a well-brought-up young lady; she’s insulted at being reduced to the status of scullery maid, but her Cinderella-among-the-ashes phase doesn’t last long. Almost immediately, this wily player sizes up Sarah’s relationship to the queen—a toxic blend of political manipulation, sycophantic flattery, and tactical sexual servicing—and decides she wants the power conferred by the position of royal favorite all to herself.

As Abigail uses her beauty, intelligence, and ruthlessness to ascend in the palace’s power structure, a few male characters come into play as well: There’s Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult), a foppish Tory leader who blackmails Abigail into acting as his royal spy, and Masham (Joe Alwyn) a clueless young aristocrat who has the hots for the queen’s cute new maid. (Alwyn happens to be the latest on Taylor Swift’s blank slate, making him a rich choice for a similar role here.) But the world of The Favourite is one driven by the desires of women—which is not to say that there’s anything Utopian or “empowering” about it. The women in Queen Anne’s court, including the often-infantile monarch herself, may be cleverer than the men who surround them, but that doesn’t make them any less petty, greedy, or cruel. The visceral appeal of this movie, which is palpable even to a skeptic like me, is in watching three formidable women treat each other and everyone around them with brazenly shameless awfulness. As Colman, who gained 35 pounds for this role (and who will also play an English queen, the current one, in the new season of Netflix’s The Crown), puts it in a memorable interview, “All human beings are the same. We’re all multifaceted, many-layered, disgusting and gorgeous and powerful and weak and filthy and brilliant.”

Lanthimos’ cheerfully anachronistic script pairs formal court language with contemporary slang: “OK” and “no pressure” are both uttered at some point by wig-wearing grandees. The director’s disregard for period authenticity, taken in and of itself, is refreshing—this profanity-packed sex romp is as far from staid and respectable as a historical costume picture can get.
But an hour in, I still wasn’t sure whether I was watching a high-camp comedy, All About Eve with bustles, or a melancholy drama about an isolated, depressed, and ultimately tragic woman, a victim of her own status as a hereditary monarch in an age of absolute power. This heterogeneity of mood may have been the whole point, but it struck me as an emotional equivalent of Lanthimos’ sometimes exhausting tendency toward visual and aural maximalism. In a series of scenes, Sarah and Abigail discuss court gossip while practicing pigeon shooting.* As they blast away at the innocent birds thrown in the air by palace underlings, we’re meant to enjoy their deliciously nasty exchange of jealous insults and barely veiled threats. These scenes contrast sharply with others set in the royal bedchamber, where Abigail and the queen tenderly play with Her Highness’ 17 pet rabbits—one named for each of the children the widowed queen has conceived and lost either in pregnancy or early childhood.

Lanthimos’ fussily composed shots and smothering aesthetic excess sometimes bring to mind the English director Peter Greenaway, whose 1982 murder mystery, The Draughtsman’s Contract, also took place in a world of merciless aristocrats and severely trimmed hedge mazes. There will be viewers who, unlike me, don’t feel asphyxiated by all this visual symmetry and archly scabrous dialogue. (The C-word is thrown around freely and creatively enough to make Samantha Bee’s joke writers look prudish.) But even when the movie’s self-love gets to be a bit much, there are stylistic touches to enjoy. Sandy Powell’s elaborate and witty costumes, largely designed in a black-and-white color scheme that pops out from the palace’s dim candlelit halls and brocade-hung salons, evoke the period while also adding cheeky modern touches. And the director’s imagination for variations on the theme of upper-class decadence is inexhaustible; no other movie this year, surely, will include a credit for “Nude Pomegranate Tory,” the cherubic target of a fruit-throwing drunken parlor game.

At times, Lanthimos seems to be aiming for some kind of contemporary allegory about the corrupting nature of proximity to power. But the real effects of the mercurial queen’s shifting policies—there’s an ongoing debate about raising taxes on “the people” to pay for a war with France—take place far from the palace. The director seems less interested in the political repercussions of the queen’s negotiations with her ministers than in the prurient fun of watching his self-destructive anti-heroine do things like stuff herself with blue-frosted cake, vomit copiously into a receptacle proffered by a waiting servant, and then reach unrepentantly for another hunk of cake.

Although the intrigue swirling around the queen’s debauched inner circle lost its interest for me around the one-hour mark, the three leading ladies never did. Colman, especially, delivers a titanic performance as the alternately weak-willed and indomitable queen. She can be self-pitying and self-indulgent to the point of being repellent, but the emotionally needy and physically frail Queen Anne (or “Mrs. Morley,” as Lady Marlborough affectionately nicknames her) always somehow retains our sympathy in her flailing quest for the same things the nonroyals among us spend our lives trying to find: pleasure, security, and love.

Correction, Nov. 19, 2018: This piece originally misstated that two of the protagonists practice shooting quail throughout the film. They actually shoot pigeons.