The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, chronicles a brief time in the 18th century reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), and her relationships with the Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone).

As monarch, Anne has absolute power and rations it out those who most please her. Sarah and her formidable opponent and cousin, Abigail, vie to be the queen’s ‘favourite’, and they are ruthless. Anne seems incompetent and childish; she struggles with gout, has 17 pet rabbits (one for each lost child), and a tendency to overeat cake, vomit it out, and promptly resume eating. We wonder, at first, if she is being used by Sarah and Abigail. But we are quickly disabused of this. In truth, Anne is basking in the attention and goads them into competition for her affection. In this Machiavellian wet dream, she is the master puppeteer.

In the beginning, Sarah is the favourite. She is the queen’s oldest and dearest friend – and lover. Sarah is married to a Duke (a title bestowed on her husband by Anne) and has a penchant for politicking and governing. As long as she has the queen’s ear, and, well, the Queen herself – this power is safe with Sarah. Until wide-eyed Abigail shows up. From scullery maid, she works her way up through the castle, becoming Sarah’s maid, marrying a courtier, becoming a baroness – and Anne’s other lover.

Unlike in other period films, the female characters are not portrayed as graceful, or well put together.

Having fled poverty, and rape, Abigail has no intention of ever returning to those circumstances. As an act of survival, she must elbow Sarah out of the way to secure her position as the favourite. The film is about power – its coveting and possession. The story is about using sex to obtain or retain it, resulting in an all-female, gender trope-upending love triangle. This is no Downton Abbey

The film is not completely accurate in its interpretation of historical events, even though it is based on real figures. The overt sexualisation of Anne and Sarah’s friendship is one example. Historians have long speculated about the sexual nature of their relationship, but the film places it front and centre. In so doing, The Favourite subverts gender stereotypes. Examples abound. A pigeon-shooting scene features a trigger-happy Weisz and Stone in a power-off. Sarah of Marlborough – rocking leather boots – literally “wears the pants” (another act of subversion), as she begins to comprehend the full extent of the gown-clad Abigail Masham’s cunning. As for the male characters in this film, they are side-pieces. They prance and bloviate, prettied up in heels and garish makeup, while the women seem to be wearing none.

The other remarkable achievement of Lanthimos’ film is the depiction of queer sexual desire. It is unbridled and unapologetic.

And then there is the unlikability of the main women. There is no attempt to make them weak, sympathetic, or pleasant, as is usually the case with most female characters. Unlike in other period films, they are not portrayed as graceful, or well put together. In fact, it’s the opposite. They trip, fall, vomit and bleed. At no point do you find yourself rooting for one over the other – they are delightfully despicable. This also gives the characters full agency, and the opportunity to depict other components of humanity: jealousy, lust, and greed.

Each of them is complex: power-hungry, manipulative, self-serving, and at each other’s mercy. Of course, they live in a profoundly repressive world; Abigail arrives at the castle to escape a life of “whoredom”. But the film doesn’t dwell on it and instead acknowledges the deeply entrenched patriarchy and violence against women as accepted fact. Even so, the women seek to be in full control of their lives and actions, and do anything to survive.

The other remarkable achievement of Lanthimos’ film is the depiction of queer sexual desire. It is unbridled and unapologetic. It isn’t sanitised or stylised in order to be more palatable to cis or male population. The women want what they want, how they want it. Weisz is tremendous as a manipulative lover, and Stone’s energy and petty one-upmanship are infectious.

Olivia Colman is unforgettable – she is at once petulant, vulnerable, insecure, despicable, and childish – without being reduced to any one of these traits. Her stupendous performance just won her the Academy Award for Best Actress. Incidentally, Rami Malek won Best Actor for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury – a queer icon – in Bohemian Rhapsody. Several critics have slammed that film, calling it “queerphobic” and a missed opportunity at providing us with a complex portrait of a gay man.

Hopefully, The Favourite has paved the way for a shift in the (long overdue) portrayal, and reception of queer characters and films.


Featured Image Source: Screen Rant

Leave a Reply