The Favourite

The Favourite ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

[8.5/10] There are times when the cinematography from The Favourite’s director, Yorgos Lanthimos, and its director of photography, Robbie Ryan, is a bit distracting. At times, Lanthimos and Ryan use a wide angle lens in a way that emphasizes scope within an enclosed space, or holds his subjects at a distance despite how the traditional grammar of film might suggest bringing the audience closer. To some extent this serves the film’s themes of perceived distance between people in intimate situations and false intimacy in what are perceived to be close ones, but at times it also feels more like a tic than an organic piece of the presentation.

But the best way that Lanthimos and Ryan, as well as editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis break the usual rules of cinematography, is in their long reaction shots. More than once, when the usual editing rhythms would dictate cutting between the two people in a conversation, or the event and the observer, The Favourite lingers on the face of the person whose reaction is most important instead. Lanthimos and company let their actors tell the story, of epiphanies grand, small, opportunistic, and tragic, giving the audience time to study their faces and see the emotional consequences of what’s unfolded rather than be told about them.

That’s the great strength of The Favourite, a movie that is as much about the inner lives of the three women at its center as it is about the power-hungry game of royal capture the flag at its center. The film tells the story of Queen Anne, an English monarch beset by loss and reclusive uncertainty; Lady Sarah Marlborough, the Queen’s friend, confidante, and de facto political representative; and Abigail Masham, Lady Marlborough’s cousin who’s brought in as a scullery maid but has designs to climb the ladder out of her humble circumstances.

Ostensibly, the film is centered on who has de facto control over the throne and holds the power of decision with respect to the ongoing war with France. On the one hand is Lady Marlborough, allied with her husband, the head of the country’s armed forces, and the prime minister, who wants to continue the war. And on the other is Abigail, who after currying favor with the Queen over a gout treatment, begins receiving overtures from the opposition leader, Lord Harley, who wants to sue for peace and end the costly war. As both women vie for Queen Anne’s ear, and various blackmail schemes and alliances form in the background, England’s immediate future seems to hang in the balance.

But The Favourite mostly uses that backdrop as stakes and setting for the more personal scheme to scheme combat between Sarah and Abigail, and the personal feelings and failings and distress of the Queen, who’s more interested in companionship and wanting to be loved and attended to than in the business of state. It’s a movie about sexuality, both in how alternative lifestyles are presented in a period setting, but also how physical affection is weaponized and commodified as another treat on offer. It is chiefly a psychological film, which uses its twisty plots and power grabs to explicate the mental state of its stars rather than for the sake of God and Country.

It’s also a damn funny film. Bawdy as all hell, with schemes that play as much for their darkly comic potential as they do for craftiness or malevolence, the film offers a dry wit and a brand of gallows humor that keeps the proceeding livened and laugh-worthy even amid its headier themes. The dialogue in particular is a delight, with creative insults, loopy exchanges, and lovely turns of phrase. The Favourite also captures the lunacy of the noblemen, amid duck races, fruit fights, and forest-side wrestling matches that underscore the absurdity of how the fate of the nation depends on the likes of these idiots.

And yet, at the same time, The Favourite is a profoundly tragic film, about the turning away of tough but genuine love in favor of the flattering but false. It’s centered around a woman who’s massaged and manipulated at least a bit by everyone she encounters, who is clearly unfit to the rule, but who’s in that state after unfathomable losses and physical hardships that help explain why diversion and delight require such a hold over her to keep the distressed and disturbed at bay.

The film toys with its audience a little, trying to earn your sympathies for the comparatively powerless Abigail, who has lost her good name due to her father’s craven shiftlessness, and overcomes her cousin’s efforts to keep her at heel to make her own way. At the same time, it initially paints Lady Marlborough as the bad guy, seemingly mollifying the Queen in a practiced but begrudging fashion, whilst knocking her down when necessary, so as to exercise the real power of the throne behind closed doors.

But the cinch of The Favourite is its telegraphed but still potent flip. For however harsh and practiced in the arts of palatial subterfuge Sarah is, the film reveals her genuine affections for Anne, and her earnest beliefs that her actions, however peculiar or occasionally manipulative they may seem to an outside observer, are for the best, for both the Queen and the England. Abigail, on the other hand, starts from a much less enviable position, but wins the Queen’s favor and gains her council purely on mercenary terms, without a care in the world for the person she’s twisting to get there or the political alliances that help grease the wheels of her rise to power and ouster of her rival.

The Favourite’s biggest moments are the realizations of these things: the moments when newcomers discover how things work at the palace, where dalliances have begun and ended, when the worm has turned and who you’re stuck with after it happens. More than once, Lanthimos and his crew allow Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone to carry the emotional weight of the film with those extended moments in the frame, where these epiphanies and resignations and shocks are allowed to wash over them until they wash over the audience too.

With that tool, The Favourite draws its dichotomy: between the practical, persuasive, and occasionally harsh, all done in the name of true belief and even love, and the ingratiating, conniving, and easy answers, offered in the name of predatory and nest-feathering nihilism. The import of that realization, and the shocks and building blocks that lead to it, are left to bloom on the screen, as words from other scenes echo, the special lenses and quirks fall away, and we see our heroes, villains, and victims come to terms with the unfortunate, unfixable messes they’ve made, effected, or allowed.