The Favorite (2018)
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writer: Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
Cinematographer: Robbie Ryan
Producer: Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Lee Magiday, and Yorgos Lanthimos
by Jon Cvack
When I saw the preview, I expected another 18th century dramatic tale about the English Royal family with one or two of these released per year (and sure enough, just days after seeing this Mary Queen of Scots (2018) was released). Most are good, but more and more they rely on the predictable biopic format, portraying a character that must overcome seemingly impossible odds, whether for love or power.
Even broader, I just don’t like most films that portray the aristocracy during this period, no matter the nation reflected. The more I learn about history and the more the world is exposed, the more you realize how privileged the characters in these stories often are; whether because of some dishonorable wrong from a peer, or some type of love triangle.
I didn’t love The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), as being unfamiliar with the Greek story, I felt mostly lost; let alone that other films have explored similar ideas in more engaging ways - whether
Funny Games (2007), Straw Dogs (1971; 2011), or The Strangers (2008). The best part of the film was Barry Keoghan, who after seeing him in American Animals (2018), is becoming one of the most exciting young talents to follow.
The Favorite kicks off with the same style, as two female characters deliver incredibly dry dialogue; creating an initially jarring effect, as I struggled to adjust to the style and cadence; with the whole audience wondering whether it was okay to laugh and leaving me wanting to go back so I can pick up on all I missed during the first ten minutes or so. The two characters are Anna, Queen of Great Britain who reigned from 1707 to 1714 when she died, and her closest advisor and amour Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz).
From there we cut to a cousin of Sarah’s, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), in a wagon, headed to the palace in order to take a job. Catching eyes with a man in front of her who smiles and then proceeds to masturbate in front of the five riders. He later pushes Abigail out of the carriage where she falls face first into mud, having to visit Sarah without cleaning up. She gets a position in the scullery. First tasked to clean the floors in which she dunks her hand in a bucket of acid bleach, burning her skin while the other girls smile and laugh.
Nationally, there’s an ongoing war between the French and English that’s winding down; in which the conservatives are willing to take it further to acquire more land - though at the cost of taxing land owners - and a progressive group that wants to end the war, avoid the taxation, and save the lives, while missing out on the additional territory. The progressives are led by Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer; who might be the first character to beg the question as to how absurd it is to adorn oneself in makeup and wigs.
Through shrewd office politic maneuvering, Abigail earns the trust of Sarah; who gets Abigail out from sleeping on the floor in a room full of women, some grossly ill, and into her own bedroom. Soon Abigail is visited by a younger man, Joe Alwyn as Samuel Masham, 1st Baron Masham, lusting for her like an animal, which she further uses to her advantage.
One night, after Sarah offers Abigail the chance to use her library, Abigail hunts for a book of poetry and finds Sarah and Anna in her room having sex. Anibail realizes the leverage she has over Sarah; bringing up the concern during some skeet shooting the next day. It’s at this moment, as the background politics settle along with the style, and we finally grasp the world we’re in, that I realized how smart the story was; namely - a political love triangle between two incredibly sharp characters, in which the filmmaker was willing to jettison the genre norms and create a story unlike anything I’ve ever seen; providing that rare paradigm shifting moment in cinema. Should this win best picture (it didn’t, losing to Green Book (2018)), or at least be a contender (which I’m surprised people are even saying about such a bizarre movie), it will forever change the way this world is portrayed; in which taking their relatively insignificant problems all that seriously is as ridiculous as the content itself.
Abigail soon works her way to the Queen, and before long, provides the same cunnilingus prowess that Sarah offered. Jealousy arises and so begins the cloak and dagger battle as both women attempt to outsmart the other. Sarah by accusing Abigail of theft and relegating her to the kitchen, where Anna then promotes her to be a chamber maiden. However, Sarah still is able to resume her position by playing to Anna’s heart, rather than her lust. Abigail ups the ante and poisons a cup of tea, which Sarah drinks, immediately feeling the need to clear herself in all directions. Riding her horse home, she faints, still connected to the steed, and dragged for over a night. Eventually she’s taken in by a brothel who sews up a nasty scar on her face and hopes to put her to work as a prostitute.
The disappearance troubles Anna, who’s worry and concern is appearing to trump any amount of pleasure Abigail could provide. It’s when one of the conservative politicians visiting the brothel discovers Sarah that she returns back; providing one of the more interesting dynamics as Anna is disgusted by Sarah’s scars and bruises, which Abigail then used to her advantage; exploiting Sarah’s disfiguration by planting a seed of distrust in Anna; convincing her that Abigail isn’t be trusted, and, in fact, attempting to gain political advantage. One upping Abigail, Sarah threatens to leak all of Anna’s lascivious love letters to the press should Sarah be removed. However, this proves too much of a threat, as the genuine connection between Anna and Abigail prevents Abigail from ever actually releasing the letters; instead burning them, in which Sarah then nudges Anna a bit further, using Abigail’s reluctance against her and having her exiled for good.
It’s here that the film takes an interesting turn. Years later, Sarah is now the socialite star of a debaucherous party, where she kisses other men while getting blotto on wine. By now Anna has had a stroke which paralyzed half her face. Sarah still provides Anna pleasure, though with the physical attraction waining, the reluctance is far stronger. It’s when one of the politicians mentions that Sarah’s interested in sending a letter that Anna says it’s fine if she wishes to try. Sarah of course writes the letter, which Abigail then steals and burns, preventing their reconciliation.
The ending comes a bit abruptly, yet it’s after thinking about the film for weeks after that it seems the best possible option. Abigail’s transition from innocence to corruption is so finely drawn, with each scene adding just a bit more dirt than the previous, that it’s no wonder that she’d eventually turn completely; making you instead wonder if she had the intention from the very beginning, or simply observed the office politics around her, knowing that her only in was to marry a man she didn’t love, to pleasure a woman she wasn’t attracted to, and hurt a cousin she had never known, all in the effort to gain an affluent life. Or, if maybe all of this was simply a result of living in squalor; a byproduct of her parent’s mistake. Who wouldn’t do whatever they could to avoid being beaten and forced to sleep on a cold basement floor?
It’d take another viewing to properly connect the dynamic to the background political conflict; though I’m doubtful as to whether they relate so much as explore the general absurdity in attempting to resolve the conflicts. The two political parties can’t reconcile their differences or properly appease the Queen, while Anna’s incompetence and insecurity prevents her from seeing the ways in which the two women are exploiting her own desires.
Sarah’s transformation was the film’s most impressive feat, as Rachel Weisz created a character which began as boring and despicable and into a fascinating and, at times, heartbreaking portrait of a woman who might have been unable to express her love. Even better, I’m not sure the latter is even possible, as I often wondered whether Abigail was also putting on an act. Only her burning of the letters seemed to hint at any actual feelings.
It’s one of the most beautiful movies of the year, shot with some of the widest fisheyes I recall seeing in a film other than some skate video. It shouldn’t work, and yet somehow it captures the world; in all its beauty and absurdity, never making it feel artificial or forced. Some films usher in a new way of portraying an era, embodying its essence in ways we’ve never seen. What Saving Private Ryan (1998) did for WWII battle footage, The Favorite might have done for cinema taking place in the ~18th century.
BELOW: A brilliant scene, skirting that fine line between satire and reality
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