The Favourite (2018) – dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

There’s a lyric that I quite love from The National’s “Walk It Back,” where Matt Berninger sings in a particularly dejected croon, “Nothing that changes changes anything.” Berninger’s line is a sour reinterpretation of “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” We like to think we’re evolved. We like to think we learn from our mistakes, that, as we evolve, as our ideas build off of worn perceptions of the world, that we become better as a species. And in many ways, humanity has made incredible breakthroughs, and has tried to better itself. That drive to problem solve is innate to us. Equally ingrained, however, is our selfishness, our short-sightedness, our craving for power and control.

Even in the absurdly mannered worlds of Yorgos Lanthimos, a sort of primal ugliness is always hiding in plain sight. No matter how tidy the world, his characters, always shamefully recognizable in one way or another, will resort to any lengths of desperation, twisted logic, or naked cruelty to forward their values or agenda. In that sense, The Favourite is resolutely a Lanthimos picture, this time as a period piece depicting an episode in the reign of Anne, Queen of Great Britain and the competition between cousins for her favor, complete–in the simplest terms–with an ornate physical world inhabited by people who aren’t afraid to play dirty or be a little ruthless, if the ends justify the means.

The Favourite seems simple enough upon the surface: An ailing Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), who seems ill-fit to rule anything, is spoken for by the cold and no-nonsense Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), only for Sarah’s stature to be compromised by her underdog cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). As the film progresses, however, sympathies fluctuate, and Lanthimos, working from a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara–his first film without a screenplay credit since his first film My Best Friend–fleshes out these lustrous women in their complex glory, with his characteristically biting, devilishly funny, unfailing propensity for getting under the skin.

Sarah is a stone-faced woman, consistently sidetracked by opposition leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), as well as the whims of Anne, while trying to win a decisive military campaign against an open-to-negotiations France. Abigail is perhaps the typical Emma Stone character–she’s even given a quirky entrance by falling into a mud patch, in attempt to escape a gentleman not-so-subtly masturbating before her–with the caveat that she is surprisingly cutthroat in her upward mobility, motivated, no doubt, by her loss of ladyhood after being gambled away by her dad; but not many other performers would’ve leaned into their self-assured innocence like doe-eyed Stone.

But the most noteworthy performance in a film lousy with them is Colman, whose incarnation of Queen Anne comes off as a joke at the onset. She’s emotionally fragile, and an awareness to her volatility, as well as her considerable authority, prefaces every interaction with her. Yet, as the film evolves, one comes to love Anne, or at very least feel defensive of her. As childish as Anne appears, she’s a very alienated person who is further isolated by the cruel catch-22 of being infantilized by those around her, but is so frustrated and in such declining health that she has no chance of being an effective monarch. Even Sarah, who is Anne’s closest ally, occasionally handles her with kid gloves–albeit with few reservations in take them off. Colman masks heartbreak and aching loneliness with an unpredictable temper, as well as literal, physical aching.

Sarah’s and Anne’s relationship is a worn affair. To see their dynamic on the set, one gets the impression that Sarah is used to bending Anne her way. And because Sarah is so consumed with parliament and waging a war of attrition on the French, Anne is strained for any kind of affection. Sarah can only look after her so much, which makes Abigail’s eventual usurping a point of inevitability. In that sense, The Favourite is very much about marriage and fidelity, just as the film is about politics and duplicity. Sarah is unavailable to her significant other, even if the reasons behind her absence are understandable. Equally sympathetic is Anne in finding company with Abigail–the other woman, so to speak. Yet, Abigail has limited interest in Anne compared to Anne’s vast fortune, and her alignment with herself never really shifts. Getting the things often means making sacrifices. Sarah would rather be blunt and productive than doting and affectionate. Abigail would rather throw her cousin under the bus than be a loyal, and potentially toil away as a mere housemaid. And Anne would rather threaten others and speak thoughts that assert her power, lest anyone attempt to take advantage of her

The film doesn’t think much of the men who otherwise dominate this world–even a brothel Sarah wakes up in late in the film is dictated by a strict madame. One assumes all of the not-terrible men are fighting Sarah’s war, including Sarah’s husband John Churchill (Mark Gatiss). Hoult’s Harley is perhaps the most developed, but his boyish demeanor coupled with his calculated political machinations turn him into more of a weasel than anything. Even the most likable man at home Mr. Masham (Joe Alwyn) doesn’t realize he belongs in another, lesser movie. Masham wants to be the dashing Prince Charming to Abigail, but Abigail has been around enough men to be totally won over by him. They wrestle in a meadow, reaching The Quiet Man levels of fatigue, wherein Abigail repeatedly dominates Masham. In a later scene, Masham tries to bed Abigail, only for her to give him a distracted handjob as she strategizes aloud, totally ignoring her suitor.

The world of The Favourite is not hard to peg; one need not read a myriad of other descriptions to see the naked affection for the baroque opulence of Barry Lyndon, or the sardonic wit of Jane Austen, or the psychedelic cutting of Ken Russell. Not to mention that Lanthimos fulls a few tricks in distorting the world of the film from Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Yet, Lanthimos synthesizes these aspects phenomenally, maintaining a clear voice. Moreover, he adds something to the mix that has seldom existed so brazenly: Genuine heart. Where Lanthimos has never been shy about malice, anger, menace, desperation, or petulance, he is reticent to let us like or sympathize with his characters–apart from simply showing us our worst tendencies. The Favourite has many sly turns, but the complex pathos that unfolds and carries to the very end of the film is by far the most gratifying.

That sense of sense of understanding goes both ways. The Favourite is so compelling, largely because these women, and even the crudely drawn men, come from completely identifiable places. They want order, security, to fulfill some sense of duty, to be wanted, to find some semblance of peace. To fulfill their wants, they’re all willing to muddy the waters. Lanthimos is very direct about this. And though Lanthimos is not the first storyteller to have ethically gray characters, he never takes sides. Instead, Lanthimos just toys with the notion of choosing from some moral binary. The title of the film The Favourite is almost a taunt that way. That those we idolize or demonize are never so easily defined, something Lanthimos always alludes to, but never more potently than here.

Rating – 9.3/10

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