Those who possess more than my cursory knowledge of the history of British royalty have made it clear Yorgos Lanthimos’s new movie The Favourite is bollocks as a historical document. This is a claim that is most likely true, and frankly, I don’t have a problem with that– I doubt the director of Dogtooth and The Lobster, to name two of Lanthimos’s previous warm-hearted crowd-pleasers, does either. I suspect he’d propose that sticking to the facts is a job better suited to schoolteachers than a director possessed with the desire to get to a different sort of truth. And anyway, historical veracity, such as it exists in Hollywood and international cinema, has never been a guarantor of much of anything beyond great cinematography and costumes, and often of a certain stuffiness of attitude which suggests the filmmaker’s concern with nutritional value has supplanted her/his need to tell a good story—the upcoming Mary, Queen of Scots would seem to be in contention to continue this grand tradition, if the humorless trailers are any reliable indicator. But in The Favourite Lanthimos’s own tradition of observing humanity as if it were a series of specimens under glass finds a rich and satisfying expression by embracing the machinations of political power within the court of England’s Queen Anne in the manner in which they have been conceived in the script, written by historian Deborah Davis and UK TV scribe Tony McNamara, as something akin to a reimagining of All About Eve with powdered wigs and crinoline dressing up all the similarly pretty poisons of interpersonal intrigue.
Anne herself, as embodied by the magnificent Olivia Colman (herself now in waiting to replace Claire Foy as a more mature embodiment of Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown), is in any given moment a figure of immense sympathy, comedy, tragedy and volatility, one for whom her subjects clear as wide a path as their servitude will allow. She’s crippled by gout, insecurity and loss– the 17 children she’s had to bury are represented in her court by a litter of bunnies on whom most of her sympathies are projected (Anne’s actual husband, Prince George, is a nonfactor here and merits nary a mention.). The one person allowed into the inner chambers of Anne’s vulnerabilities, the one person who sees her both as queen and confidant, as well as someone whose power is there to be constantly measured and influenced, is Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who uses the access allowed by her long-standing friendship with the queen, which extends back to their childhoods, to act as a sort of shadow empress, manipulating Anne’s confidence to extend an increasingly unpopular war with France headed up by her husband against the complaints of Parliament. Davis and McNamara use hints from historical correspondence between Sarah and Anne to posit that Sarah’s manipulations extended from political and psychological into the sexual, which makes an even more teasingly ambiguous puzzle for the audience as to precisely the quality and temperament of Sarah’s sympathies and her pique, and Weisz occupies those ambiguities with her customary brilliance.
By the time Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s disgraced young cousin, arrives at court, she’s already been subject to a variety of humiliations. Her father has sold her into servitude to pay off a gambling debt, and she sees her royal connection as a path to betterment, and her cramped coach ride to the castle ends with the young woman face down in a puddle. When Abigail complains of her befouled clothing to a chambermaid– “This mud stinks”– the maid assures her that the stench is what passes in the realm for political commentary, and that assessment rather not-so-tidily sums up the movie’s own superficial deferral of political analysis in favor of interpersonal wriggling. (“This Mud Stinks” also provides the title of one of the chapter headings by which the movie has been rather neatly punctuated, all of them bearing similar headings cheekily derived from the movie’s dialogue.) Abigail’s forthrightness with the maid also portends her own ambitions to regain her dignity via a manipulative streak to rival her cousin’s, and soon she supplants Sarah in the queen’s affinity, and in her bed chamber, an act of personal redemption that seals her fate in royal amber.
When one thinks back on the plethora of historical dramas that have been afforded audiences throughout the history of movies, the word “fun” doesn’t come up too often, even given that the definition of the word is necessarily elastic when it comes to what might float your boat in the cinema—The Scarlett Empress and Lawrence of Arabia are both boatloads of fun, if you ask me, and of course your mileage may vary. But The Favourite has to be one of the most purely, devilishly fun movies ever to set itself up in the post-Barry Lyndon era of naturally lit, impeccably detailed dramas of corrupt or corruptible aristocracy, its picaresque qualities doing a gender switch into Abigail’s ambitious and questionable methods of social climbing, then subverted and redistributed into a framework of ostensible male power where the women pull all the strings, nowhere more prominently than amongst themselves.
The actresses are all exemplary—Stone is the real lead, her wide-eyed countenance always impishly masking, and sometimes unexpectedly revealing, the depth of her personal ambition and her seething anger at the degradations she’s suffered, and she’s rarely been as nimble, as playfully barbed as she is here. But Weisz is easily her match—no one in the movie, or maybe even the movies has a dry stare as penetrating as hers– and Colman will be even more of a revelation for anyone who stumbles into The Favourite unsure of who she is than she will be for those of us who know her well. (In my book, she entered the realm of greatness by her sarcastic reading of the word “mu-u-urder!” in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, and she has any number of similarly brilliant moments here.) But those like me who had difficulties with some of his past films, like The Lobster or The Killing of a Sacred Deer, should be prepared to be surprised by Lanthimos himself too. He pleasurably betrays the conventions of the stately dramatic tradition by ensuring that his movie is constantly on the move, paced at times like a farce and punctuated with duck races and anachronistic dances and spine-tingling outbursts of outrage. The whole enterprise comes decorated with harshly funny language and a recurring dalliance with a fish-eyed visual scheme that suggests this detached, almost scientifically inclined dissector of human nature has not entirely abandoned his penchant for putting his characters under a microscope. Yet The Favourite has a peculiar spirit that his previous films haven’t—one can see the existential prankster of Dogtooth at work here, but this time, yes, he’s having fun, and he’s figured out a way to make sure his audience does too.