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Non-Review Review: The Favourite

If the stock comparison to The Killing of a Sacred Deer is The Shining, then the obvious comparison to The Favourite is Barry Lyndon.

It is a stock comparison, bordering on facile. After all, there is a world of difference between Yorgos Lanthimos’ story of two women competing for the attention of Queen Anne and Stanley Kubrick’s story of the rise and fall of a roguish Irish gentleman. However, the similarities are striking. Both are eighteenth century period pieces that boldly eschew the conventions of period dramas. Both The Favourite and Barry Lyndon rely heavily on natural light and repeatedly draw the audience’s attention to the nature of the narrative of constructed.

You Only Live Weisz.

However, the most striking point of comparison might be thematic and philosophical rather than simply literal or textual. Just as The Killing of a Sacred Deer explored the collapse of a family unit through the prism of decaying masculinity in a manner that recalled The Shining, the world of The Favourite is defined by its study of power, pettiness and pomposity. As in Barry Lyndon, the fickleness of comfort and the arbitrary nature of security are a recurring fascination for The Favourite, which meditates repeatedly on how precarious such positions can be.

The Favourite is a story of cruelty, both human and natural.

A Stone-Cold Schemer.

Repeatedly over the course of The Favourite, director Yorgos Lanthimos shoots wide shots through a fisheye lens. The edge of the shot seems to bend and distort, curving in an unnatural manner. Even on a rectangular cinema screen, it seems as though the audience is peering into a bubble. This happens regardless of setting, but primarily within the palace halls. It underscores a sense of weirdness and otherness about the palace, capturing the sense in which life inside the royal court has a surreal quality to it.

The effect is even acknowledged in dialogue, in an early conversation between Robert Harley, the leader of “Her Majesty’s Opposition”, and Abigail Masham, a young maid who had caught the Queen’s eye. Harley alludes to the “distorted” view that one has from the royal court, what modern observers might comment as a “bubble.” Much is made of how insulated Queen Anne is from her subjects; Harley repeatedly warns of revolution in the countryside, and Anne herself suggests drawing a straw poll from he subjects to get a sense of the mood among the people.

Going by the book.

These fisheye shots literalise this sense of disconnect between what happens in the palace and life outside it, the relative comfort and luxury that would be unimaginable to the commoners who defecate in the streets outside. (“They call it political commentary,” one maid wryly observes.) However, these shots also underscore a sense that there is something revealing in the frame. As much as this is a distorted view, it is still a view. As far removed as Queen Anne might be from her subjects, she is still a human being and so has some sense of common experience.

The Favourite repeatedly emphasises how smaller and more intimate dynamics replicate themselves on a larger scale, how patterns repeat and how certain realities can be extrapolated out from individual decisions to political policy. This is most overt in the way in which The Favourite treats the War of Spanish Succession. The war itself is kept entirely off-screen. There are no shots of armies, no inserts of the horror of war. There are scarcely any accounts of what is actually happening. The reality of the war is largely irrelevant to the figures moving through the royal court.

Queen of Hearts.

Instead, the War of Spanish Succession is largely defined and shaped by the politics within the royal court. The direction of the war is determined largely by the whims and moods of Queen Anne, whose decisions are not based on strategic necessity or larger political concerns, but instead by her personal mood. When she wishes to punish her friend and lover Sarah Churchill, she does so by withholding support for the armies led by Sarah’s husband, the Duke of Marlborough. When she seeks to reward Sarah, she proactively encourages the army.

The Favourite repeatedly returns to the idea of how fickle the great arc of history is, how much can be determined by an individual’s mood in an individual moment. If the course of empires and kingdoms can be set by a petty grievance in a small room thousands of miles away, what possible control can a single person hope to have over their own lives. When Abigail Masham comes to the royal court, she already understands this. Abigail was lost by her father in a game of “wist.” Her inheritance was lost, her title destroyed. She understands how temperamental fate can be.

Horse play.

In that context, it is perhaps revealing that The Favourite returns time and time again to the idea of pets and animals. The movie establishes this early on; the rabbits that Queen Anne keeps, the ducks that the gentlemen of court race and bet upon. The Earl of Godolphin, who plays a role similar to what would later be defined as “Prime Minister”, travels everywhere with his pet duck. Queen Anne has eighteen rabbits, each named for a child that she lost. Sarah considers the practice “morbid”, but Abigail seems to understand.

The point of comparison is obvious. In her own way, Queen Anne “keeps” Sarah and Abigail just as much as she keeps those rabbits. They are just as subject to her whims, and just as likely to be crushed under her heel. However, The Favourite suggests a strange symmetry in that relationship, the extent to which Sarah and Abigail each try to manipulate and control Queen Anne for their own ends. Indeed, the first meeting between Queen Anne and Abigail consciously evokes Aesop’s fable about the mouse and the lion.

Annie which way but loose.

It helps that Olivia Colman plays (and Lanthimos frames) Queen Anne as something close to a big baby. Anne is fickle, prone to temper tantrums, and frequently bedridden. As one might expect from royalty, she has no sense of personal boundaries and no respect for the autonomy of others. Have, Anne is never presented as a character who is entirely autonomous. She spends a lot of the movie in bed or in a push chair. She is repeatedly dressed by other people. She is easily manipulated by both Sarah and Abigail. Anne herself is frequently powerless.

This is one of the central theses of The Favourite, the sense in which power is ultimately an illusion; the distinction that exists between so-called “hard” power and “soft” power and the boundaries of both. At one point, Harley goes frustrated with the games that Abigail is playing, the speed with which she is manoeuvring through the court. “I thought you were on our side,” he protests. Abigail bluntly responds, “I am on my own side.” This is perhaps the most honest thing that Abigail says over the course of the film, and the script refuses to condemn her for that.

Playing favourites.

Even within this most rigid of social frameworks with the most clearly defined boundaries and the most room for politicking, The Favourite argues that people (especially women) must navigate the structures entirely as self-interested actors. It is a very bleak meditation upon the human condition, but one very much in keeping with the worldview articulated in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. The world is a wild and chaotic place, and everybody is essentially on their own in navigating it, and nobody is ever truly secure.

The Favourite benefits greatly from a fantastic cast. Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are compelling as the two lead characters, developing Abigail and Sarah into complex and multifaceted individuals who are clearly defined and who remain understandable even as they scheme and plot. (Perhaps the most compelling thing about The Favourite might be its own refusal to play favourites, cannily shifting the audience’s sympathy throughout.) However, the breakout performers in the ensemble are Olivia Colman as Queen Anne and Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley.

The social fabric.

The script from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara also deserves recognition. It is playful and light, despite its heavy thematic subject matter. Even ignoring the bleak central meditation upon the human condition, The Favourite plays remarkably well on a scene-to-scene basis, watching great actors bounce off one another with quick thinking and pithy dialogue. The Killing of a Sacred Deer was a tough watch at times, a bleak meditation on a very grim world view. In contrast, The Favourite bounds along as it tackles many similar themes with an endearing energy.

The Favourite is well worth seeking out, and a highlight of awards season.

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