The Favourite Reviews
Final rating:â~...â~...â~... - I liked it. Would personally recommend you give it a go.
I want to research this period of history.
Not historically accurate at all and the lesbianism highly unlikely given Anne was constantly nursing her sick husband and a religious prude. James I on the other hand..
England, 1708. Queen Anne (an absolutely mesmerising Olivia Colman) has been on the throne for six years, with Great Britain finding itself enmeshed in the War of the Spanish Succession. In poor health, Anne has little interest in politics, with the real power lying with her friend, adviser, and secret lover Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (an icy Rachel Weisz). Sarah and Prime Minister
Sidney Godolphin (James Smith) plan to finance the war effort by doubling property taxes, but are opposed by the leader of the opposition - Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford (Nicholas Hoult). Meanwhile, Sarah's impoverished younger cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone, charting a course from doe-eyed ingénue to vicious Machiavellian intrigant), arrives at Court looking for work. Sarah secures her a position as a scullery maid, but when Abigail learns that Anne is suffering from gout, she uses a herbal remedy on the sleeping Queen without asking permission. Sarah has her whipped for her presumption, but Anne sees a noticeable improvement in her condition, and by way of apology, Sarah gives Abigail a position closer to the Queen. With Harley hoping to use Abigail as a spy to find out what Sarah is planning, and Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), a foppish courtier, attempting to woo her, Abigail must quickly adapt to courtly life. Learning of the lesbian relationship between Anne and Sarah, Abigail begins to ingratiate herself with the Queen, leading to a bitter contest between herself and Sarah, as each attempt to establish themselves as Anne's favourite.
The Favourite is the first film Lanthimos has directed which neither he nor Efthymis Filippou wrote. Although it deals with real historical personages and events, historians probably won't be too thrilled to learn that Lanthimos and his screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara are relatively uninterested in either historical actuality or socio-political contextualisation (to say nothing of the slam dancing and frequently anachronistic dialogue). For example, there's no reference to the Glorious Revolution (1688), which saw James II, the last Catholic monarch of England, overthrown; or to the Treaty of Union (1707), which formally brought the state of Great Britain into existence. Similarly, it is never mentioned that Anne was the last Stuart monarch or that Abigail was appointed Keeper of the Privy Purse in 1711. The nature of the political antagonism between the Tories and the Whigs, although often referred to and occasionally witnessed, is kept vague, with little in the way of an historical frame of reference. For example, the film never addresses the fact that Godolphin and Harley were both Tories, with Godolphin heading an administration dominated by leading Whigs (the Whig Junto), and Harley leading a coalition of Country Whigs and Tories in opposition.
On the other hand, there's no evidence whatsoever that Anne and Sarah were lovers. On the contrary, Sarah is known to have found lesbianism abhorrent, commissioning the politician Arthur Maynwaring to write scurrilous poems about Abigail which intimated that she might be gay. Additionally, Anne was devoted to her husband, Prince George of Denmark, who doesn't even warrant a mention, let alone an appearance, despite being alive and well at the time of Abigail's arrival at Court. However, it's also important to note that the film makes no claim to be a history lecture. This is a story about a love triangle, with everything else just the background noise against which that triangle plays out.
But although it may not be historically accurate, it is most definitely a Yorgos Lanthimos film, with his peculiar Weltanschauung omnipresent. The emotionless and monotone delivery of dialogue has been scaled back considerably from The Lobster and Sacred Deer, but everything else you'd expect is here - the pseudo-omniscient judgemental glare; the dark absurdist sense of humour; the formal rigidity; the emotional isolation of the characters; the surrealism; the games of psychological one-upmanship; the alienation of the audience; the thematic centrality of shifting power relations; the lack of distinction between poignancy and joviality; the use of self-contained and closed off pocket universes where characters must play by rules differing from those of the outside world; intimate familial conflict (except in bigger rooms than in his previous films); and a disorienting score, which mixes pieces by Purcell, Vivaldi, Handel, and Bach with more contemporary work from the likes of Olivier Messiaen, Luc Ferrari, and Anna Meredith, whilst the closing credits feature Elton John's "Skyline Pigeon" (really). Similarly, whilst The Lobster was a savage dystopian-set allegory for discipline and conformity, The Favourite is a merciless satire of decadence and pettiness, taking in such additional themes as class, gender, love, lust, duty, loyalty, partisan politics, patriarchal hegemony, and women behaving just as appallingly as men.
As one would expect from Lanthimos, the film is aesthetically flawless, with many of the compositions having the appearance of a fête galante painting, so meticulously integrated are Sandy Powell's costume design, Fiona Crombie's production design, and Robbie Ryan's cinematography. Powell's costumes are historically inaccurate, but thematically revealing, with the situation of the characters at any given moment directly influencing the design. For example, speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Powell says of Abigail and her rise to a position of influence, "I wanted to give her that vulgarity of the nouveau riche, and her dresses get a little bolder and showier. There's more pattern involved and there are black-and-white stripes. I wanted her to stand out from everybody else as trying too hard." In a more general sense, the black-and-white colour scheme of much of the wardrobe contrasts magnificently with Crombie's predominantly brown production design, with the actors effortlessly standing out from the backgrounds. The occasional use of black-and-white stripes is also worth mentioning, as it subliminally intimates that the characters are imprisoned, not so much by their physical milieu, but rather within the hypocrisy, pettiness, and forced politeness of the Royal Court.
Of Ryan's photography, perhaps the most impressive feat is that, despite the many scenes tracking characters through rooms, up stairs, and out doorways, there's not a single Steadicam shot anywhere in the film. He also makes copious use of 6mm fish-eye lenses, which distort the spaces the characters occupy whilst also showing much more of the environment than a normal lens, creating the sense of characters lost within an overload of background visual detail. Combined with the whip pans seen throughout the film, the cumulative effect is a world rendered strange, a place of distortion and unnatural compositions. As Ryan explains to Deadline, "by the nature of being able to see everything in front of you, you then get a sense that the characters are almost imprisoned in the location. Even though they have all this luxury and power, they are a little bit isolated in this world. By showing you the whole room and also isolating the character in a small space you get a feeling of no escape." As with most of Lanthimos' work, the film also uses natural light, which makes for some stunning candle-lit night-time compositions, partially recalling the paintings of someone like Jean-Antoine Watteau or, even moreso, Georges de La Tour.
In terms of acting, there really are no words to describe just how good Colman is. Utterly inhabiting the character, she is able to elicit empathy mere moments after behaving thoroughly shamefully, communicating a sense of both tragic inevitability and a childlike refusal to accept reality. The character could easily have been a grotesque villain or a pitiful broken shell, but Colman finds a nobler middle ground, straddling both interpretations without fully committing to either, moving from one to the other seamlessly throughout the film. Yes, she can be a horrible person with appalling manners and questionable hygiene, but she is also deeply lonely, a survivor who has lost 17 children in childbirth, a woman whose health has made her old before her time, a deeply tragic figure too naïve to see how badly she is being manipulated by Sarah and Abigail, something encapsulated brilliantly in the haunting last shot. Rather than trying to downplay the contradictory facets of the character, Colman leans into them, illuminating Anne's humanity amongst her least appealing characteristics, and finding both wit and pathos in a character whose mercurial nature and excessive neediness could easily have rendered her the film's antagonist. It truly is one of the finest on-screen performances in a long time.
Weisz and Stone are also both excellent. Weisz plays Sarah as a clinical manipulator, highly intelligent and relatively emotionless, whereas Stone's Abigail grows from a guileless chambermaid to a vindictive Janus-faced usurper. However, even at her most outrageous, there remains always something of the innocent girl we met earlier in the film.
The film's most salient theme, one could argue its very raison d'être, is the dynamic of gender politics. For starters, it's headlined by three actresses (something which is still rare enough as to be notable), whilst the only two male characters of any significance (Godolphin and Harley) are both portrayed as petty, vainglorious idiots. Indeed, men in general are background players, existing only to be mocked, exploited, and duped - with their ridiculous wigs and heavy makeup, they exist only to support the women. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Powell explains that Lanthimos wanted the women to have natural hair and light makeup, and the men to wear gaudy makeup and ridiculous wigs; "normally films are filled with men, and the women are the decoration in the background, and I've done many of those, so it was quite nice for it to be reversed this time where the women are the centre of the film and the men are the decoration in the background." Similarly, speaking to the Hollywood Reporter, Weisz explains, "what's interesting to me is that the men in The Favourite are wearing lots of makeup and blusher and lipstick and high heels. That they're peripheral characters who are slightly ridiculous. They're an afterthought. That may not be unusual in life, but it's unusual to see in films."
However, what's especially interesting about the film's depiction of gender is that the world of women is anything but a utopia. Yes, it's relatively free of toxic masculinity and the male gaze, but in most other aspects, there's no real difference between the matriarchy and the patriarchy. Sure, the women are much smarter than the men who surround them, but they are no less greedy or cruel. At the film's post-première press conference at the Venice Film Festival, Lanthimos explained, "what we tried to do is portray women as human beings. Because of the prevalent male gaze in cinema, women are portrayed as housewives, girlfriends... Our small contribution is we're just trying to show them as complex and wonderful and horrific as they are, like other human beings." Similarly, when asked by the Hollywood Reporter if a film about females treating each other badly might be considered a setback in a post #MeToo era, Colman explained, "How can it set women back to prove that women fart and vomit and hate and love and do all the things men do? All human beings are the same. We're all multifaceted, many-layered, disgusting and gorgeous and powerful and weak and filthy and brilliant. That's what's nice. It doesn't make women an old-fashioned thing of delicacy." The preening and pettiness of the men, of course, is purposely overdone (Harley proclaims at one point that "a man must look pretty"), creating a milieu where it is men, not women, who tend to be judged by their appearance, objectified, and used. Just look at the hilarious scene where Abigail coldly gives Masham a hand-job as she ruminates about more important matters - once she has gotten what she wants from him (his hand in marriage), she is no longer interested in him whatsoever, a direct reversal of traditional filmic gender roles, where it is usually men who use women. Men, in The Favourite, are utterly disposable.
As regards criticisms, although I personally wouldn't class them as flaws, some people will probably dislike the same things that many have disliked in Lanthimos's previous work - cold formal rigidity, perverse sense of humour, and irredeemable characters being irredeemably horrible to one another. There will be those who find the obviously intentional anachronisms too much, whilst others will take umbrage with the disregard for historical authenticity. For me, whilst I admire Lanthimos for trying to bring something new to his oeuvre, especially when compared to Sacred Deer, I felt the film was oftentimes trying to work its way through an identity crisis, unsure of exactly what kind of tone to settle on. I had similar feelings about the allegories that run throughout, but are never what you would call fully fleshed out. Obviously, it's a treatise on power and the ridiculous opulence of royalty, but that's not exactly an untapped issue in cinema. Additionally, one of my biggest problems with Sacred Deer was how utterly pointless it felt, and although I got a lot more out of The Favourite, I had something of the same reaction to it. It could also be argued that the characters are a little two dimensional, and filmgoers who need a protagonist to latch onto, someone to root for, will be left rudderless.
The Favourite will probably attract a sizable unprepared audience because of awards buzz, positive reviews, and excellent trailer. Undoubtedly, for a lot of people, this will be their first exposure to Lanthimos, and I can only imagine what people expecting a Merchant Ivory costume drama will make of it all. Neither morally enlightening nor historically respectful, The Favourite offers a bleak assessment of humanity's core drives; not Lanthimos's bleakest, but a hell of a lot more nihilistic than an average multiplex goer will be used to. The characters within the film live in a milieu of egotism, narcissism, sexual cruelty, psychological bullying, greed, and hunger for power. There's barely a hint of sentimentality, and very little that could be called morally righteous. I would have liked it to have more meat on its bones, but at the same time, one cannot deny that it presents something of a faithful looking-glass, as Lanthimos continues to corner the market in pointing out not just humanity's worst foibles, but its most egregious eccentricities and lamentable character defects.