In the opening minutes of The Favourite, a film set during the reign of Queen Anne of England and the last monarch of the House of Stuart, during The Caroline era, a tempest brews in courtly fashion of the period. You can the sense a general tone of decay of Queen Anne’s court in the feature, in the ornate and lavish costumes, in the art direction, in the general uneasiness of the characters and the dishevelment that hints at the aesthetic that persist throughout the movie.
The Favourite is a film in the vein of the movie “Ridicule,” directed by Patrice Leconte. The Favourite is a livelier tale, but just as dark and wickedly funny in many ways that “Ridicule” isn’t. Director Yorgos Lanthimos plays a lot in this movie–he plays with our perception of the Caroline era and its culture, while he cleverly blends timeless themes into the story. It’s a time capsule of The Caroline-era sensibilities, with veiled contemporary expressions and attitudes we can all relate to. There isn’t anything more timeless than politics and competition for attention, the desire for favor, betrayal, a desire to be loved and a desire for a sense of importance. He plays with all of these subjects in both the dialog and the cinematography. The Favourite is a luscious, dirty mess and a glorious celebration of rivals engrossed in their myriad sins and quests for imperial power.
A thought that occurred to me while watching The Favourite was that even though those who inhabited the royal court, who were rich and cared for in the most genteel fashion, waited on hand and foot, were all still dirty. They were dirty even dressed in lovely hand-stitched silks. The fancy men and women flouncing around in make up stunk, all smothered in perfumes, and they were impoverished by our contemporary standards, embroiled in selfish interest, in political intrigue, idleness, mischief and all subject to the vagary and whims of monarchy. They had the window dressing of beauty and refinement, but the foundation was built on grime and decay. This perception haunted my experience throughout the film.
The story revolves around three women, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, played by Rachel Weisz, Abigail, played by Emma Stone, and lastly Queen Anne, played by Olivia Colman. The story kicks off with Abigail, who has fallen from the gentry. While she was born into nobility, her father gambled their fortune away. Once he had died, she was left to fend for herself. This leads to her being unceremoniously dumped on Queen Anne’s estate to beg for a job within the house staff. Once employed, her star rises until she has the council of Queen Anne herself. A series of conflicts arise with Sarah Churchill, who has the most intimate trust of the Queen. There are various sordid conflicts and eyebrow-raising political intrigues that drive the narrative to its conclusion with moments of despair and dark hilarity. This is where director Yorgos Lanthimos’ fascination with remorseless cruelty and morbidity finds a home, as both parties vy for Queen Anne’s attention and favor. Each attack on Sarah was matched with a counterattack on Abigail until the tables have turned in Abigail’s favor. Sarah eventually finds only humiliation and hits a new low as she is exiled from the Queen.
On a number of occasions Lanthimos used a wide-angle lens in interesting ways to heighten the drama and for visual effect. This shot happens a number of times, but is most noticeable when Abigail walks down the hall to the Queen’s room. It makes for an unusual visual play for the eye and was the most Kubrickian cinematic choice in the movie. The director finds other ways to drive the story in interesting ways, creating long fields of vision without tracking the subject and using concentric points of interest in the scene.
“The Favourite” is a mischievous run through the marvels and misery of Queen Anne’s later years and the newly formed Great Britain under her monarchy. This earthy and fun romp in Carolean naughtiness offers a hilarious, gritty eye on courtly life and its rivalries. The anecdotal illustration of this bygone era’s machinations are sure to please.