“We’ll make a killer of you yet”
Yorgos Lanthimos’ dark comedy The Favourite (2018) hones in on one of history’s most intricate power plays – one that took place between Anne, Queen of Great Britain (1665 – 1714), and her two ladies of the bedchamber, Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill. While much of the film’s great scuffle rests heavily on sexual favours, most historians have rejected the notion that Queen Anne was a lesbian. Then again, most historians denied the existence of the shield-maidens of The Viking Age before female archeologists re-examined the wounds on the women, and found that they bore the same injuries as the men they were buried with. Regardless, this ambiguity allows the film to detach itself from the bounds of reality even further.
Set in 1711, the British-Irish-American co-production follows the slow disintegration of the jovially raw friendship between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her trusted adviser, Sarah (Rachel Weisz). This decomposition is initiated by the arrival of Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), who schemes and acts to the best of her ability to escape a life of destitution and humiliation. As masks begin to slip, so does the balance between favour, power and love.
First of all, the camerawork is an absolute thrill. From fisheye lens to gliding shots that encompass the protagonists, one never feels truly detached from the unfolding events. In the echoing halls of the palace, which resemble the passageways of an encapsulating nightmare, there is an oppressive sense of seclusion from the world. Ominous sounds bellow and yawn in the background as the audience is treated to mind-muddling transitions and uncomfortably low angles. And in the darkness that transcends it all, faces remain half-concealed crescents, evading the honesty of true intentions.
In true Lanthimos fashion, the on-screen world is humbled by wonderful eccentricity, which heightens the ridiculousness of life at court – one that adds greatly to the great farce of life we witness. And yet, below the surface, there is a certain charm that coneals the complexity of the soul. This is where the artillery of acting comes in. Without the actors’ admirable command over their mimicry, the film wound have floundered quite pitifully. The brilliance of their portrayals is no small feat, especially when one takes into account the deep study of human nature that the film is attempting.
Having not much plot to reply on, the audience’s rapture hangs onto the fascinating twists and turns of manipulative minds, the horrors of womanhood, and the overall madness of the female psyche that is so vividly captured between blazing shadows. Every character is flawed, but this very realism allows the story to strangle time and embrace its relatability. In fact, the discomfort that bleeds from the screen seems like a growling beast. It lurks in the corners of every scene, and strips any attempt at seduction of the softness it could have nurturted. Instead, a sense of throbbing repulsion and detachment prevails.
The three women play their parts wonderfully, and this observation makes itself known through the dislike and horror their characters ignite in the viewer. Rachel Weisz, in particular, mystifies with the elusive sincerity of her character’s true feelings. Through it all, steadfast morality is called out into the light and ridiculed ferociously. And this is where the film’s tectonic plates begin to slip and slide out of formation.
The head-snapping manipulation the women master within the first half of the film becomes taxing in the film’s second half. As though pretzeled into oblivion, the rambunctious personalities stagnate and no longer thrill with their childish wickedness. Perhaps the film’s greatest downfall is its length, which – like any good thing that is stretched beyond the limits of its beguiling charm – grows stale and tedious.
As it is, we spend the second half watching poor relations tear further, leaving no room for unpredicatbility or reflection, as everything seems to have already been told. Abigail and Queen Anne achieve a phyrrhic victory, each in her own way. Their whims inflict more damage than either could have foreseen, therein stripping the women of satisfaction, and leaving the power they both sought and exercised beyond their true reach. Despite their position and rank, everyone is reduced to the human ego that begs to be grander than its confines.
By achieving this state, the human beings portrayed on-screen are left as helpless and hounded as animals, allowing a certain bestiality to pervade their struggles. This element is wildly indicative of Lanthimos’ work, though the script was written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. It has been suggested that animals play a vibrant role in his films. Dogtooth (2009) can be interpreted as a metaphor for Greek’s “oppressive polis”, while The Lobster (2015) begs to be read allegorically. After all, the human narrative that the on-screen animals are subjected to hints at some devious form of cultural profiteering.
However, it seems unfair to pit The Favourite against The Lobster, as the former was not written by the director himself. And yet, one cannot help but wonder whether his peculiar touch and artistic vision would have succeeded in rousing the script – and the characters – back to life.
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