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.
I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR THIS REVIEW I JUST BOUNCED IN MY CHAIR AT WORK OKAY OFF TO ACTUALLY READ IT NOW
Here for lesbian movies about duck racing, politics and other indoor sports.
I want to use this as my bio on all my social media profiles and my tombstone tbh
I have so many feelings about this movie, especially regarding Rachel Weisz’s shooting outfit. It was really gay. And also the fact that the men wore more makeup than the women was hilarious.
Thank you for this delicious review, Heather! I have the feeling this going to be my new favorite movie. A period piece about queer women who get to be unseemly, knee men in the groin, and say the word cunt?? SIGN ME THE FUCK UP, THOSE ARE ALL MY FAVORITE THINGS.
I saw this last weekend, it’s weird as fuck and i loved it so much. A period piece entirely focused on three women who sometimes have sex with each other? yes please!
How did I not know about this film! It looks amazing! Rachel Weisz is becoming, well, necessary. Yes, that’s it, necessary.
Unf, I am so excited for this!
Also, is there any context regarding cunt-struck – I want to double-check before I immediately start using it in every conversation possible.
This looks really good, but I was on the fence about going to see it in theaters. This review (and the phrase cunt-stuck, TBH) pushed me over the edge.
I can’t wait to see this! Your review is what means I want to see it in the cinema now.
I saw The Lobster and kind of hated it, so am nervous to see this. What if I get stuck in the cinema watching Rachel Weisz having her eyeballs cut out? I don’t think I can sit through that shit a second time.
That said, the trailer does look amazing.
Based on this review I assume these women are openly queer and it’s addressed in the movie? That is awesome. From the trailer I thought it might all be subtext.
I mean openly to us, the viewers, not necessarily open to the other characters as you mentioned they keep it a secret.
I was really wary of this film for some reason when I saw the trailer, but now I can’t wait, yissss.
I loved Dogtooth and The Lobster so much, so when I heard Lanthimos was doing a period piece about lesbian royalty I became VERY EXCITED. Now I absolutely cannot wait to watch this, Olivia Coleman and Rachel Weisz are also two of my all time faves. Thank you Heather for this review, can’t wait to round off 20gayteen with this one!
I JUST saw this movie today and honestly Rachel Weisz in her shooting outfit is my new sexuality.
Yes! And that one she’s wearing when she dresses the queen before they go put on the horses. OMFG. I may have stopped breathing for a brief moment during that scene.
Clearly totally over-excited having just got home from seeing this at the cinema.
i just finished watching (finally!) and am thankful that my therapist recommended the lobster (she loved the trailer) to me when it first came out (to her horror, and she said she would never recommend anything to me ever again after i told her what happened haha) because going in not knowing anything about lanthimos’ work made it really interesting cause i was like this is really fucked up but i gotta see where it goes and going with that mindset basically into any movie he makes has helped a lot
also most of the time while watching i just screamed “theyre really saying that” and “theyre really fucking” which is always a good way to enjoy a movie that you hear is gay but cant believe until you see it
thank you for the review, its one of the reasons i made sure to watch!!
also really gay for rachel weisz and this butch look that she pulls off throughout the movie
I just saw the film and came back to read your review again. I loved the film and I love the review. The last sentence brought me to tears. I mean, many people can see that this is a great movie, but for us here it means something more. Because this is something we almost never get to see. This kind of respect. That’s how I felt. Also, never been especially gay for Rachel Weisz but now I am.
“Olivia Colman, who will likely and deservedly win every acting award on earth for this role”
You called it, Heather!