The Favourite is out soon. Get your tickets here!
I quiver with anticipation for this year’s Best Actress reel. If The Favourite garners its expected nominations, awards show editors will have their work cut out for them with no “strong and long-suffering wife” monologue at the ready.
I, for one, would love to see clips of a stately British character actress vomiting up a gutful of moldy cake, or of a certain bright young 2017 Oscar winner stalking down a hallway, petticoats swishing, muttering, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.”
Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film arrives as a swift corrective to the sweeping period dramas of awards seasons past. There are no swelling string sections, no corseted bosoms heaving in firelight. Instead, The Favourite lets us into a dim and dirty world, full of dingy washrooms, soiled gout bandages, smeared makeup, closets full of sleeping, farting servants, and yes, competitive indoor duck-racing.
Which is not to say that some of the pleasures of the costume drama are wholly absent - skulduggery and betrayal and reversals of fortune abound. But Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz do battle on an increasingly claustrophobic stage, with the actual war raging far in the distance. Lanthimos forces us to read this world in tooth and claw, or rather, in natural lighting - through wide vistas of unpeopled topiary gardens, or tight fisheye lens. Hunter and hunted change places in an endless, brutal dance.
The screenplay draws its setting and characters from the court of Queen Anne, whose relatively brief reign marked the end of the House of Stuart. The historical Anne (played with delightful petulance by Olivia Colman, who is set to star as the current British monarch in the next season of Netflix’s The Crown) was a sickly woman who did not live to see her fiftieth birthday, wracked with gout and constant miscarriages. Until the end of the twentieth century, her legacy was marred by the unflattering memoirs of one Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz in the film, whose performance pirouettes between Margo Channing and Antonio Salieri), whose younger cousin Abigail (Emma Stone as the pretty but poor relation whose crotch-kicking ruthlessness rivals Eve Harrington herself) usurped her as the Queen’s court “favourite.”
As far as female-driven films go, it’s a little less The Hours and a little more Bridesmaids. An epic struggle for power, to be sure, but one that expresses itself in the language of slapstick and camp. Rachel Weisz bathes in a tub full of mud, Emma Stone smashes herself in the face with a heavy book, and Olivia Colman weeps and rages at her royal courtiers - hardly the image of strong female leadership. And thank god. When telling women’s stories, the rewards of respectability seem paltry at best. Last year’s awards ceremonies did little more than chuckle nervously at the Harvey Weinstein scandal, despite the deluge of #MeToo testimony from even the most powerful Hollywood stars. Now is not the time for well-behaved women.
In The Favourite, the women are unruly creatures, bloodthirsty and libidinal, calculating and impulsive, but they march to the same drumbeat - survive, survive, survive. Rape and assault are ever-present, waiting to befall any woman who strays beyond the hedges of wealth. There is something validating about this businesslike acknowledgment. Living under patriarchy can feel like hacking your way through a garden maze as it shifts and grows back around you, and there’s never a clear way out.
Lanthimos has long been fascinated with flailing, pathetic characters who find themselves acting out senseless rituals. But here in The Favourite, the Byzantine etiquette of the court (and the tropes of the costume drama) gives way to refreshingly lowbrow ribaldry. Lanthimos fans might find this a bit broad, coming from the director behind such stomach-churning black comedies as Dogtooth and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but they can rest assured that his penchant for human effluvia and violence against animals remains.
For a film that showcases a triad of great actresses, it is blessedly free from the hashtag discourse of 2018. Queen Anne, Lady Sarah, and Abigail are not “strong female characters,” who must resist and rebel and wrest their self-actualization from the control of men. Nor are they “likable,” or even particularly sympathetic. As the director Anna Biller tweeted, “Forcing every female character in movies to be ‘strong’ is another way of judging and controlling women. Once we were not allowed to be strong, now we are not allowed to be weak. What about female characters who are merely human?” Her 2016 film The Love Witch also challenged “prestige” notions of taste, and she has spoken often to the weakness of contemporary films’ attempts at feminism.
The women of The Favourite do not fit the mold of Hollywood feminism, or even award-friendly roles for serious actresses. Instead, they are women who are slogging through the patriarchal muck, beating and beaten by turns, content to play the game if it means they can win. They are no one’s role models. This is a film that understands that the criterion of “likability” is a trap, designed to serve only the powerful.