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NYFF Review: ‘The Favourite’ blends history and anachronism with a feminist narrative

Written by: Lauren Humphries-Brooks, CC2K Staff Writer

The New York Film Festival opened this year with The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’s costume dramedy centered on the love triangle between Queen Anne, her lover and confidante Lady Marlborough, and Abigail Masham, a young lady fallen upon hard times.

The Favourite has all the ingredients for a great costume drama: a half-mad queen beset by illness, war, sycophants, and lovers; a young maid working her way up in the world; men in flowing wigs; Rachel Weisz in a cocked hat. The divisive director of The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer takes those ingredients and makes one hell of a multi-layered cake.

As the story opens, England is enmeshed in a war with France, and Queen Anne’s Prime Minister Godolphin (James Smith) is asking for more taxes to pay for it. He’s supported by the queen’s current favorite, Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), the wife of the leader of the English troops in France and the queen’s longtime friend, confidante, and lover, and opposed by the Earl of Oxford (Nicholas Hoult), the leader of the “Loyal Opposition” in Parliament. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is an indecisive ruler subject to bouts of depression, illness, and near-madness, guided by the will of Lady Marlborough.

Into the mess comes Abigail (Emma Stone), a cousin of Lady Marlborough’s, who asks for a position as a maid in the queen’s household. Lady Marlborough and Abigail become friends, and soon Abigail is accosted by Oxford, who demands she spy on the queen. Abigail has her own reasons for getting closer to the queen, to establish a future for herself above stairs. A conflict of personal love and political ambition develops between Abigail and Lady Marlborough as they fight for influence over, and the love of, the queen.

Simplifying The Favourite down to the bare essentials of its plot, however, does not do justice to the pleasures, or the bizarreness, of what Lanthimos accomplishes here. The Favourite is a hodge-podge of history and contemporary reference, as characters bump and grind to minuets, 18th-century dialect butts up against the 21st-century, and the three leads shift and intertwine around each other in a series of bon mots, power plays, and sensationalist melodrama clichés. Unlike many period dramas that attempt to approximate the language and culture of the time period, The Favourite discards those approximations and uses recognizable language, creating an anachronistic but cohesive mix of cultures. This is both history and utterly ahistorical, with an aesthetic based in the early 18th-century that is also all its own.

The shift between the contemporary and the historical are almost surrealist, emphasized by the use of wide angle lenses to shape and distort the settings, the pared-down costumes that avoid too many frills. The women’s faces are dwelt on in-depth, their every expression, nuance, line, freckle, every shift in their allegiances and their desires depicted with an honesty that makes them both beautiful and real. It is the men who are pretty and dumb, overly made up, more concerned with wearing the right wig or the right shade of powder than with the reality that they are just bit players in a woman’s story. It is this that is most revolutionary about The Favourite, the sly undercutting of male dominance, the set up of male characters as posturing idiots who spend their time racing ducks or getting killed for Queen and Country. It’s a neat little gender reversal, and an unexpected one that plays into the shifts between historical verisimilitude and blatant anachronism.

The men are either off-screen for much of the runtime or cast as petulant buffoons attempting to negotiate what has, almost by default, become a female-dominated space. It is the women who hold all the power: Anne’s shifting moods make or break ministers, Lady Marlborough’s dominance can alter the face of England, and Abigail’s rise in rank means safety or vengeance for those who oppose her or assist her.

Women are the power brokers; their affairs with each other, and not the affairs of men, drive the narrative. The film relies, in great part, on historical realities in depicting the power of aristocratic femininity and the pragmatism of women of all classes. There are references to sexual exploitation—Abigail details how she was lost in a game of whist when she was fifteen; Lady Marlborough  faces becoming a prostitute; there are threats of rape and violation—but the women meet masculine posturing and threats with withering contempt.

Male violence, desire, and aspirations are trivial, silly, unimportant, and men, no matter how they want to dominate with power or with sex, are simply secondary. Men are a nuisance, sometimes a necessity, but there their importance ends. It is the women who truly hold all the power.

And it is Olivia Colman’s Anne who rules over all. Colman’s performance finds great depth in a lonely and mentally unstable woman expected to be powerful, but who cannot fully summon up the courage or the mental fortitude to do what is required of her, shifting between childish petulance and grand dieu et mon droit within the space of scenes, and even lines. Anne might have come off as a joke, an out of touch monarch who cannot do the single thing demanded of royalty and produce an heir to the throne. But her Anne is movingly pathetic, capricious in her attempts to reinforce her rule over a country she barely understands, but also desperate to be loved and understood.

She’s shaped, guided, and occasionally bullied by Rachel Weisz’s Lady Marlborough, a formidable figure who shifts between likability, pathos, and hardened bitchiness. The power dynamics between them are a result of their long-standing personal, romantic, and sexual relationship, as Lady Marlborough’s bullying is refracted through the lens of Anne’s disintegration. With Abigail’s arrival, they are thrown into tumult—Abigail flatters where Lady Marlborough insults, but Lady Marlborough’s love for her queen is more honest than Abigail’s desperation to claw out of her circumstances. These are three women attempting to maintain very precarious power, both personal and political, and who know they must sacrifice themselves and those they love in a bid to survive.

The Favourite is Lanthimos’s most accessible film, shaped by aesthetics but driven by plot and character. It is also his warmest, as he unites the inherent weirdness of his style with a human, emotional story. This is a narrative of power dynamics, of relationships that must navigate the complexities of the personal and the political, of a political, cultural, and economic landscape shaped by individuals, by the loves and caprices of a ruler, by the capriciousness of her ministers. It is about people trapped by a system, who find both love and horror within it. But more than anything, it’s a story about women fighting for the love of other women.

Rating: 4.5 Stars out of 5