The Favourite

The Favourite ★★★★½

A petulant ruler, a steel-in-her-veins advisor and a sweet smiling maid with a glint for power in her eye. The stately battle lines have been drawn in the royal court. War then. Messy, scrupulous, backhanded war. Only one can be the favourite.

Filmed in the gorgeous settings of Hampton Court Palace and Hatfield House, The Favourite uses the exquisite period locations and costumes to dance a masterful ballet of ambivalence. Though these period details ground the film in period authenticity, director Yorgos Lanthimos inserts deliberate anachronisms – such as the go-pro-like fish eye lens shots, or the hilarious dance between Lady Marlborough and 1st Baron Masham – which seem placed to fight against the seductive beauty of costume-drama tropes. The distortion of the world by these anachronisms (and quite literally by the fish-eye lens) serve to both lend the film a more contemporary feel while also enhancing the sense of the grotesque that is already in play here; a grotesqueness that is intertwined with the experiences of the three women in the film’s triangle. We see Abigail’s face splattered with mud, later Lady Marlborough’s with blood and Queen Anne’s with vomit – the echoing images evoking some sort of ‘anointment by viscera’ as they transition to a higher or lower state.

Each of them is dealing with loss and desire, each of them is sympathetic in their own way, but each of them has to employ ruthlessness to get what they want. Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman, complex and brilliant) is tortured by gout and emotional wounds that go much deeper. She’s rendered a childish, incapable ruler, but is nevertheless the monarch of Britain. Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz, at her thrilling best) plays for the good of the country, but has to bark commands all the way up to gripping the royal throat to get what she wants. Abigail (Emma Stone, wonderfully against type) is climbing from her fallen position, hungrily reaching for a position of safety and willingly using or stepping on anyone in her pursuit.

It makes for a grim study of humanity - it is, after all, still a man’s world, as we are reminded by the constant intrusions into Abigail’s bedroom at night. Even Lady Marlborough herself is only ‘spared’ rape after her fall from horseback in the forest. Though the dandies of the court may be buffoonish with their enormous wigs and constant petitioning, their power, being anatomically grounded, is far less tenuous.
It is here, in the male, that Lanthimos places perhaps the most delightfully grotesque moment of the film – a slow-motion sequence of Mr Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Leader of the Opposition (Nicholas Hoult, delightful), throwing oranges with his friends at a chubby, gleeful man, naked but for a wig. The absurdity and excess of these lavish elites reflecting in the flying gobs of smashed orange – shallow and fleeting.

The heart, for the most part then, is in the domain of the female. I went back and forth as I watched the film, wondering if the central romantic relationship held truth on both sides, or was just a means to an end. But I think it was, as most things are in this world, neither one nor the other; and a little of both. Duty and personal interest intermingled. That’s what keeps things so deliciously unpredictable.

“You wish me to lie to you? "Oh you look like an angel fallen from heaven, your majesty." No. Sometimes, you look like a badger. And you can rely on me to tell you.”

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