The Favourite might be a period drama, but it plays like a dark comedy- a mix of British wit and Wes Anderson-style quirkiness. Embedded within its many laughs and surreal moments is a scathing critique of aristocratic corruption, dialing up the one percent’s lavish infatuations at the expense of their political duties. Such wealth, however, is no substitute for true happiness, as Director Yorgos Lanthimos frames the side-effects of this lifestyle on its pitiful, ailing Queen. He also provides the most tragic use of rabbits I’ve seen from a film in recent memory.
It’s the 19th Century, and the English Monarchy is engaged in a costly war with France and its European neighbors. The high-ranking bourgeois and politicians, however, would rather focus on more pressing matters like cake-eating, parties and a questionable obsession with duck-racing. Within the confines of Queen Anne’s palace, they engage in “why not” activities so pompous that anyone outside their social circle (i.e. the audience) can’t help but find them hilarious. When the financial implications of war are discussed, it’s less about moral concerns than keeping all relationships between royalty and land-owning subjects stable enough to not incite backlash.
Sadly the Queen, played by Olivia Colman, doesn’t offer much input to these massive problems. She might inhabit the royal title, but Queen Anne is not “in charge” per say due to her mentally unstable and irrational behavior. Most decrees are made in Anne’s stead by Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the Queen’s close friend and confident who nevertheless seems intent on raising local taxes for the war effort. Sarah has a sharp tongue and makes blunt insults to Queen Anne’s face, but she still views herself as a loyal servant to the Crown and its subjects. And, for a brief period, she is Anne’s biggest source of comfort around the palace.
Then Sarah’s cousin Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) enters the palace grounds, and suddenly tension ensues. A former noblewoman sold into slavery, Abagail takes up a humble servant position but soon gains the Queen’s favor after using local herbs to heal her of a sickness. From there she becomes Anne’s newest confidant, flattering her looks while slyly suggesting ways to revive Abagail’s long-diminished social stature. It’s a long game that Sarah recognizes instantly, even though she’s preoccupied with forming alliances and solving the country’s most imminent problems. Thus begins a strangely seductive rivalry between these two women, both desiring Anne’s ear (amongst other parts) while guarding her against a sea of male government figures with their own agendas.
Should we be disgusted by Abagail’s manipulations? Probably, but we should also be disgusted that Abagail’s father gambled her away to a German man who, quite unsurprisingly, used her for sex. Truth be told, everyone in this film is either manipulative, selfish, ambitious, or a combination of the three- that’s where most of the comedy derives from. It’s hypocrisy and misery played for laughs, a world where servant girls casually note the painful risks of lye while aristocrats treat their prized racing ducks like a valuable trophy. Everyone wants power and will commit the most ridiculous actions to flaunt said power, resulting in a melodrama whose camp imagery is equal parts wacky and disconcerting.
It helps that The Favourite invests plenty of effort into its mise-en-scene and outfits, making this film quite the Oscar contender for Best Costume Design. The costumes feel like a showcase of early 19th Century fashion: corsets, flowing gowns, uncomfortably long wigs and deep frilly coats. Even more impressive is the inner décor of Queen Anne’s palace, with no expense being paid to the details on her wall paintings or even the walls themselves. Yet, despite filling each room with luxury, Lanthimos frames the inner space between rooms as isolating, a maze of walls and corridors that shield its primary resident from the outside world. Visually, these are sets to be admired but, narratively, they do not promise a reassuring future.
The Favourite’s aesthetics might suggest Barry Lyndon but its tone closely resembles Jean Renoir’s 1939 classic The Rules of the Game, yet another satire of tasteless aristocratic culture. One possible homage involves Sarah and Abagail discussing the cost of British lives in this ongoing war- Sarah’s husband included- while casually shooting some pigeons for fun. Human lives and impending catastrophe mean about as much to the rich as a pigeon in a shooting gallery: easily expendable so long as you can afford the costs. Once again, however, the scene is played for laughs in spite of its darker undertones, incriminating both Sarah and Abagail as equal participants of a corrupt class system despite their ongoing rivalry.
Ironically, despite being the least politically astute character, I’d argue that Queen Anne is the most empathetic of the lot. Colman plays her character as simultaneously tragic and pathetic, trapped behind a wall of luxury as her well-being proves about as stable as a powder keg. She seldom makes a decision that isn’t influenced by others, can barely remember the names of England’s enemies, and feels more self-conscious about public appearances than her Queenly actions. Sarah and Abagail are the only ones who can make Anne feel happy and even they casually manipulate her for personal or political goals, some of which are deemed necessary to keep the country stable. Her other prominent relationship is with seventeen adorable rabbits, an attachment built upon years of tragedy that, without spoiling anything, gave her character more pathos than I originally anticipated.
That’s probably the darkest thing about The Favourite’s whimsical atmosphere: you can’t go five minutes without seeing someone get played. Sarah and Abagail play each other, Abagail plays ambitious politician Robert Harley (Nicolas Hoult) and her suitor Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), Parliament plays itself, and everyone hopes to play the Queen. If there’s a way to climb the political ladder through blackmail or poisoned drinks, you can bet someone will take the opportunity. In other words, it’s standard politics with sillier outfits.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
The Favourite is beautifully designed, well-acted and quite funny in spite of its dark storyline. Much like Lanthimos’ previous entry The Lobster, its dry tone is an acquired taste but I found the delivery quite suitable to this film’s setting and subject matter. It’s probably the only tone that could successfully balance a historical figure’s existential crisis with the exquisite absurdity of duck racing.