THE FAVOURITE – Review by Moira Sullivan

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Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has won multiple prizes at A – list film festivals with dark comedies on language and gender. His latest film The Favourite is perhaps his most conventional film using the form of the historical drama. It premiered at the recent Venice Film Festival taking home the Grand Jury Prize, and Volpi Cup to Elizabeth Colman. The film is based on a radio play by Deborah Davis produced by the BBC in 2008 (script written in 1998) and the film producers sought out Lantimos to put it on screen. He revealed at Venice that he had to wait until Emma Stone was done with “La La Land” to make it.  The Greek director found Davis’ play “too political” and hired Tony McNamara to give it a Lanthimos twist with focus on the female trio of lovers. This was actually how Davis envisioned it, but especially how these intimate relationships with the Queen affected political power during her reign.

A ‘favourite’ was a favored person to the regent common in the 16th through 18th centuries of early modern Europe. The relationship included various levels of intimacy including same sex love or otherwise. As Shakespeare wrote about them in “Much Ado about Nothing” –  "Like favourites/ Made proud by Princes". Examples of “favourites” include Ebba Sparre, lady in waiting to Queen Christina of Sweden, and Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) and Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz)  who vie for the coveted role to Queen Anne (Olivia Colman).

Lanthimos’ film presents Queen Anne as an incapable political ruler and a failure in personal relationships. In real life she had 17 children who died at childbirth. The characters in Lantimos’ films are often cruel and sadistic and those in The Favourite are no exception, extending to members of the cabinet, ministers, and “the lady of the bedchamber”.  The storytelling is not only presented through characters and dialogue but the mise en scène – the spaces in which the narrative is told and illustrated through lighting, costume, makeup, movement and setting. The compositions in this film indeed are equal characters. Filmed with a wide-angle lens, the rooms are often concave – massive kitchens with high stone ceilings and thick walls, the low ceiling palace with herringbone creaky wood floors, and the sumptuous overstuffed  royal bedchamber with rabbits.

The Favourite is a tale of royal corruption and negligence especially between the rival favorites and Queen Anne, footmen, maids, servants, and in-residence earls.   While courtesans engage in training ducks for races, Anne played brilliantly by distinguished British actress Olivia Colman has for years been attended to by her “favourite” –  Lady Marlborough who advises her politically and personally. Her husband, the Duke of Marlborough is a military commander, and both engage in coordinating their asks to the regent for mutual benefit. In one scene, Sarah stridently mounts the bed of Anne with her boots and commands her to take better charge of the country and the military. Anne reluctantly crumbles to her wishes. The opening scene shows the arrival of Sarah’s cousin Abigail in a crowded coach including a self-pleasuring nobleman who shoves her onto a field of grass with human excrement.  After this embarrassing introduction, Abigail installs herself in the kitchen, an opportunistic “fallen” lady who wants to rise again after being exchanged by her father to an elderly man to settle a gambling debt. Anne’s loyal and capable Sarah manages court affairs and truly loves her but is incrementally passed over by her younger cousin, clueless to all things regal as well as intricacies of military maneuvers, which she can only understand if she sees them as “party games”. When Abigail sees Anne and Sarah in bed, her plan takes action – not because she loves Anne but because she knows bedding her is an opportunity to get a leg up in the palace. It doesn’t matter how she gains favor, for Abigail manages to poison Sarah’s tea before a riding where she is dragged by her horse for miles and taken in by a madam at a brothel.

During this time, Abigail endears herself to Anne who marries her to a resident statesman and gifts her dowry, an expense she writes off as a gambling debt. Abigail is once again a commodity exchange. The Favourite is a tale of deception and ambition but one that is particularly cruel and vicious to women. The historical revisionism of the film while captivating is ultimately a tale of women conniving and scheming for power from a regent who is ridiculed by the men of the court. If Davis’ aim was to show how this erotic liaison created power shifts in government, Lanthimos settles for trivializing and ridiculing the Queen. This fits with the historic creation of ‘pleasure’ in film through torture and humiliation of women. This same ridicule in real life was given to Queen Christina, 16th Century Regent of Sweden whose body was exhumed in the 1960s to prove she was not a man. Her relationships with women were a source of gossip in erotic lampoons (“nidskrifter”). Queen Anne is portrayed in the film as a buffoon of  limited intelligence. Her physical ailments are given considerable attention and add to a portrait of weakness and incompetence for the monarch who died at 49.

Nevertheless, what the acting ensemble of Stone, Weisz and Colman  brings to the screen is not altogether disempowering for Anne. Abigail and Sara vie for the attention of their queen through bold and emblazoned efforts. They must be dastardly to each other to bluntly and crudely win her affection. The queen realizes this and enjoys the power play. How it affects her in parliament, however, is not credible. Lanthimos did not care about the history – the ‘politics’  as Davis did in her radio play, at present unavailable on the BBC. At the press conference in Venice, the Greek director revealed that he did not want to focus on same sex love for female regents and their ‘favourites’. There was no gay rights or LGBT movement at the time, but when we look back upon this historical period it is important to affirm same sex relationships, something some directors, producers and distributors cannot do in order to prevent the film from being typecast as gay. Lanthimos is not alone. Xavier Dolan, winner of the Queer Lion at Cannes in 2012 refused to accept the award for his film about an MTF transgender to not typecast his film. The Favourite was also nominated for a Queer Palm this year. Films about lesbians do not prevent a wider spectatorship except perhaps the reach of a Spiderman. Deborah Davis realized that to depict the ‘favourites’ would make the story ‘gay’ and complicate the ‘pitch’ to producers for financing, but she wrote it. Lanthimos’ films are widely distributed and so will this one. The special media interest in The Favourite is in fact due to the story of lesbians at court and the three top actresses who play them. Lanthimos has succeeded in creating a film where the reality of a regent and her darlings even though unnamed is out there.

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Moira Sullivan

Moira Sullivan is an international film critic, scholar, lecturer, promoter and experimental filmmaker based in San Francisco. She is a member of FIPRESCI (Federation of International Film Critics) and has a PhD in cinema studies. Sullivan is one of the world's experts on the work of the legendary filmmaker Maya Deren (1917-1961). A native of San Francisco, Sullivan wrote her doctoral thesis and subsequent publication on Maya Deren's avantgarde and ethnographic filmmaking. Sullivan has been invited to special universities and art schools honoring Maya Deren in Italy, France, Germany, Sweden and the USA. Since 1995 Sullivan has been a staff writer for Movie Magazine International, San Francisco and does weekly radio reports on film reviews, film events and festivals. She also writes from agnesfilms.com named for Agnès Varda.