When I finished watching The Favorite I said out loud, “King Lear rewritten by Roald Dahl, but lesbians.” By which I meant: uneasy monarchy and palace intrigue; twisted, psychedelic, surreal humor and horror; but gaaaay. And that’s not wrong, but it’s not exactly right either. While Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ third English-language film will certainly be compared to others — Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and All About Eve are the main ones that spring to mind — it is, quite frankly, peerless. You might be tempted to call it a farce or a pantomime or even a satire, but doing so would require you to ignore that the actions of the multi-layered women at its center aren’t held up to scorn or to ridicule, but to expose the quagmire of misogynistic buffoonery they’re forced to navigate with unfeeling precision to survive. Oh, it’s very funny, but the humor teeters on the edge of a knife.
Olivia Colman, who will likely and deservedly win every acting award on earth for this role, is the mercurial, embattled, gouty Queen Anne who, through failing health, is trying to navigate the domestic politics of Great Britain’s lingering war with France. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, who will also surely add to their Academy Award nominations for these roles, play Lady Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill, respectively. Lady Churchill is Queen Anne’s longtime friend, constant companion, trusted advisor, nurse, riding companion, ruler-by-proxy, and secret lover. Abigail arrives on the scene covered in horse manure, well-educated and speaking multiple languages, fallen from noble grace by her father’s gambling addiction. She finds Lady Churchill (a distant cousin) cold and harsh but ultimately willing to make her a lady in waiting.
It would appear, on the outside, to be all lavish parties and indoor duck racing and cartoonish powdered wigs: Queen Anne ruling, Lady Churchhill following Queen Anne’s orders, and Abigail following Lady Churchill’s. Really, it’s an all-out war to become Anne’s most trusted ally; to be the once-powerless woman who, by proxy, now wields the authority of the crown.
That may sound like a pretty standard period piece but Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script is anything but well-trodden. It’s sharp to the point of stinging, cunning to a Machiavellian degree, and quirky as what the literal fuck. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan zig-zags seamlessly through common camera work to odd and uneasy angels to wide-lens fishbowl framing like a funhouse mirror. Sandy Powell’s costumes are somehow so modernly familiar yet so classically baroque. The score is Bach with a beat that sounds like night terrors closing in. Lanthimos rose to prominence in the United States with Dogtooth (2009), The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), and while The Favourite has more life and color (literally) than his previous films, his trademark cut and clipped dialogue and refusal to pan away from wounds (literally and physically) remains.
Of course, the main thing that makes The Favourite more than your standard period piece is the fact that it’s anchored on the actions and motivations of three women. Three queer women. I was thinking, as I watched it, about how every Queen Elizabeth II biopic, even Netflix’s The Crown, is, at its core, about how Elizabeth the woman has to disappear into Elizabeth the monarch, how her job is to hold fast and stand still while the men around her scurry and plot and connive and act. That’s not any more historically accurate than this film, but it says so much about how we like our fictional women characters and how we like our real life women leaders. Elegant, clear eyes, clean hands, above the fray, quiet most of all. Colman’s Queen Anne shrieks. She screams. She sobs and wails and moans and mourns. Sometimes for no apparent reason, at a string quartet practicing on the lawn. Sometimes because her body is covered in oozing, festering sores and she has no relief. Sometimes because of the anguish she constantly carries of having lost 17 children, either in childbirth or not long after. She acts. Sometimes of her own volition, sometimes at the pleading or discreetly planted ideas of the two women vying for her affection and trust. She’s an active player in her own welfare and in the welfare of the state.
Abigail and Lady Churchill, too, are constantly in motion — dancing around each other, shooting for sport and for pleasure, weaving through the men seeking to seduce and coerce, soothing the Queen, empowering the Queen, bending to the Queen, laughing with the Queen, sleeping with the Queen. Their strength and wits and willpower are matched only in each other. Neither of them have the luxury of hope or empathy. Men live; they survive.
The most stunning thing about The Favourite isn’t the dialogue, which features the word “cunt-stuck” more than once; or the improvised break dancing to Handel; or the cheeky camera work; or even the dazzling acting. The most stunning thing about The Favourite is how it slices open three queer women and lets their messy humanity bleed all over you, the way it adamantly refuses to allow you to love or hate any of them.