starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult
written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
by Walter Chaw Imagine, if you can, that the leader of the country is ineffectual at best--an invalid, maybe, surrounded by vipers and sharks who do the real business of leading, feeding forever wars to enrich themselves, beholden to the monied upper classes who dictate advantageous-only-to-them policies around taxation. Imagine that this ruling class were devoted to nothing except their own leisure: besotted by firearms and obscure pastimes, throwing lavish parties, while the less fortunate (everyone else) died in wars that could be stopped if only they weren't so profitable. Yorgos Lanthimos's The Favourite is hilarious, but it would be even funnier if it weren't so absolutely spot-on about this mess we're in here in the United States--which is, apparently, spreading. The only comfort Lanthimos offers is that we're probably not in much worse shape than mankind has ever been. Cold comfort, indeed. The Favourite is not just one of the best movies of the year, it's the most topical, too, and the most hopeless as a result.
The period between 1708 and 1710 likewise saw Britain in the midst of the War of the Spanish Succession, which was just one of any number of times England found a reason to kill Frenchmen and vice versa. It's this war to which Sarah has sent husband John Churchill, a.k.a. Lord Marlborough, the head of the military. (In case you're wondering, yes, Winston Churchill is related. So is Princess Diana.) In one of the dozens of venomous exchanges that comprise Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara's script for The Favourite, Abigail asks how Anne could bear to sacrifice her husband for the sake of England and Anne responds, "Didn't you sacrifice your cunt to save your father?" She's referring to what seems a fabricated backstory: that Abigail's father had lost Abigail once to a "fat German with a thin cock" in a card game, and was so distraught he went on a vacation with his mistress somewhere with booze and goats. Abigail is allowed by Anne to secretly marry a nobleman, Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), somewhere in 1707, muddying the film's timeline, but the broader details are where the devil is and it's the incredible viciousness of the politics, gender and national, to which Lanthimos is drawn. His previous pictures have dissected insular family mythologies (Dogtooth), institutional mythologies (Alps), institutional/familial (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), and institutional/romantic (Dogtooth again). Detailing the tumult in the latter years of Anne's reign suggests the culmination of his obsessions, although this is the first time Lanthimos isn't working from one of his own screenplays. The Favourite is his most accessible work by far only because it's a lot sneakier about its nastiness.
The motor that drives the film is the struggle between Sarah and Abigail for the favour of Queen Anne. It's also the motor driving Northern Secretary Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) in his ambition to unseat Goldolphin's (James Smith) Whigs in favour of his own Tory party. He's for ending the war with France and with it the taxes that impact his one-percenters, and he's willing to use Abigail's new closeness with Anne to do it. There's a bit where he asks Abigail what side she's on and she says she's only ever on her side but that this sometimes intersects with Harley's interests. I like this moment a lot because it speaks to the venal opportunism and narcissism of not just the character but also the court, the country, and the world and its leadership. The trouble with politics is mainly something to do with how politicians are only interested in their own enrichment--and that rich people are generally only interested in getting richer. The Favourite is a series of jousts between these three: Abigail, Sarah, and Harley. They sometimes threaten each other overtly--as when Sarah fires a pistol at Abigail, or when Harley shoves Abigail down an embankment, or when Abigail poisons (not fatally) Sarah--but mostly covertly through their words, actions, and most importantly little pulled strings and other sundry machinations. Note when Abigail arrives for work at Kensington how the maids who will be her peers undermine her, prank her horribly, do their best to humiliate and oppress her. The statement is a strong one: people are immensely horrible and capable of great cruelty, particularly when there's power or riches at stake, no matter how middling or humiliating.
Lanthimos and the great DP Robbie Ryan (American Honey, Slow West) conceive a claustrophobic, candle-lit look for The Favourite that evokes Russian Ark and Barry Lyndon if either had been occasionally shot through a fisheye lens. The camera movements are fluid, stately somehow, while still being anxious. A scene of Abigail and Masham's early "courtship" tracks Abigail smoothly from left to right until the action shifts and the camera's motion with it, and then back again when a riposte is delivered and answered, and then there's a genuinely funny shot of Abigail's conflicted reaction to her own impertinence. Stone is the best she's ever been in The Favourite. She plays Abigail as tough, resourceful, cunning, and smart enough to know the risk she's in as a woman in this time, and the risk she's exacerbating by openly declaring war on the Queen's most intimate counsel. Lanthimos knows how to use Stone. I've never thought of him as an actor's director, necessarily. His films were so mannered to this point that they tended to strip performance away, like an actor in one of Brecht's absurdist melodramas. Here, he finds in Stone a certain opportunism beneath her sunniness, a certain steel at odds with her honed and polished popular image. Her first appearance in the film has her as the object of a disgusting man's (Paul Swain) public wanking, followed fast by her falling into mud mixed with human feces, left there as a political statement by Anne's unhappy citizens. Imagine if Audrey Hepburn were introduced in Roman Holiday with someone jerking off to her and then her falling into a pile of shit. It's All About Eve set in the last days of the House of Stuart. While I don't know if it's better than All About Eve, I like it more.
Stone is a surprise, Weisz, as always, is good, and Hoult is fantastic as a vicious fop, but it's Colman who centres the film, grounds it in pathos when at all times its energy is high farce. A fiction for the film, her Queen Anne has seventeen rabbits she dotes on and names, setting them free in her chambers to roam as they will. She's in exceptionally ill health (a condition some have since determined was most probably Lupus), causing open sores on her legs and an inability to walk without great pain or assistance. She vomits when she eats sugar, though it doesn't stop her from trying. There's a scene where Abigail comes to play cards with Anne instead of Sarah where Abigail says that Sarah is busy with affairs of state and Anne says with indignation, "That's me. I'm the State." It's easy to treat Anne with disdain. She's a stereotype of a certain kind of weakness of character. Yet Colman gives Anne real depth. She tells Abigail that she has seventeen rabbits--it's a laugh line--and then she says it's one for every child she's lost through miscarriage, stillbirth, or not long into their lives (her oldest surviving son only lived to be eleven). For all her disinterest in governing, there are shots of her, magnifying glass in hand, labouring over documents she's trying to understand. She's complicated, and The Favourite allows that time and illness are indiscriminate and brutal. By the end, she's not funny anymore. By the end, the film's not funny anymore, either.
The Favourite cuts so deeply because it finds the weld-point between personal failure and institutional collapse. It says that a poor leader cannot by herself be held responsible for the crimes of her administration, but rather her enablers and supporters, even her antagonists public and personal, bear the lion's share of culpability. It says that all human endeavour seeks profit and that any collection of humans creates politics. It's the best answer to the position that morons hold that film is not political. Art, once created, is by the act of its creation political. The Favourite is so good because it also locates the Freudian juncture between sex and the ambition that drives everything. It boils us down to our animal selves. There's a scene where the noblemen are throwing something, pastries maybe, at one of their number, naked but for a ridiculous wig, laughing as they do; another where they've gathered to race ducks that becomes a running joke when Goldolphin insists on carrying the "fastest duck in the city" around with him for a few more scenes for fear he'll be stolen, or eaten. It means something that the duck is named "Horatio," I think. Something perhaps to do with Anne's late husband being from Denmark, like Horatio's buddy Hamlet--or that Horatio alone is left to tell Hamlet's tale. The veneration of a fast duck tells a tale indeed: of sloth, greed, pride, envy; The Favourite is a checklist of all seven deadly sins, a chronicle of the fall of an empire that did not fall. If there's something optimistic to pull out of this latest Lanthimos comedy of the clockwork of human behaviour, it's that idiots, criminals, and sometimes genuinely evil assholes have always run the world, and there's still a world to run despite them. Let's hope our luck doesn't run out.