New York Film Festival Review: THE FAVOURITE

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Have you ever wondered what sexual politics would be like in a matriarchy? In their rompin’ stompin’ film, The Favourite, shown as the opening night feature for this year’s New York Film Festival, director Yorgos Lanthimos and writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, give you space to imaginatively explore that possibility.


This very unusual costume saga is set at the intersection of All About Eve (Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950) and the long list of movies about the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1, all of which feature blockbuster women enclosed securely within the domain of male political and social power. That is to say, they are women intruding into the male domain. By contrast, Davis and McNamara have penned a yarn about Queen Anne, who ruled England from 1702 until 1714, in which her sexual appetites determine the fate of Europe and define the parameters within which the male courtiers operate, as two blockbuster women compete to be the female power behind the female throne. It’s different, and has an interesting relationship to the official histories about Queen Anne. Perhaps, it also casts some illumination on current events in the United States as well.


Historians record Anne as a chronically unhealthy woman who suffered 17 miscarriages during her marriage to Prince George of Denmark, and was afflicted by gout. She had difficulty walking and, for that reason, had to be carried for most of her mature life in a sedan chair. As the daughter of a Catholic, Anne also experienced first hand the violence that the ruling Protestant monarchy unleashed on England’s Catholics. Because of the frenzied religious turmoil, she survived by cutting herself off from her beleaguered father, and became queen only after she renounced Catholicism. She filled the void left by King Charles II and the monarchs who succeeded him, William and Mary, none of whom provided the kingdom an heir to the throne. Much of Anne’s short reign was taken up with a very expensive military European conflict known as the War of the Spanish Succession. And all of this is present on the periphery of The Favourite; but at the film’s dynamic, dramatic core is the erotic friction among Anne (Olivia Colman), Sarah, Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), with whom Anne had been friends since childhood, and Sarah’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) who schemes to take Sarah’s place in Anne’s heart—and bed. All of the women are involved with men, but those relationships—and how atypical is this?–take a back seat to the female entanglements. (Anne, Sarah, and Abigail are all actual historical personages. The sexual triangle is a matter of conjecture rather than fact, but plausible according to documents and letters of the time.)


While the film gives us intermittent information about the British and the French armies off killing each other on the battlefield, it focuses on the progress of the seduction of Abigail Hill by the power structure of England. Yup, there are two important seductions taking place in this colorful movie. We follow the process by means of which Abigail seduces Anne away from her cousin Sarah, but we also watch Abigail being seduced by England. She evolves into a major manipulator in an effort to avoid the abuses visited on people with no power, in general, and on women in particular. This may make it sound like The Favourite has an ideological foundation, but that is actually dubious. Lanthimos and Davis were present at the press conference for the film and radiated great pleasure in the strong personalities of the three main characters as opposed to any interest they might or might not have had in historical details. It was obvious that they know the history, but it was equally apparent that they are first and foremost story tellers. And the film itself speaks for their delight in narrative as they gleefully record the indomitable energy, wit, allure, and intelligence of the women. (It’s an edgily funny, fast moving, very good looking, entertaining movie.) Nevertheless, The Favourite cannot avoid its relationship to ideas about women and power of all sorts. With the same rapaciousness that Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) in All About Eve schemes to replace Margo Channing (Bette Davis) as the premier actress in America, Abigail engages in a conquest of Anne to replace Sarah as the force to be reckoned with in the kingdom. Except this time there are ramifications for all of Europe. You can’t separate these three women from very large political issues.

However times have changed, sisters. Where Eve is presented as a force of inexplicable evil–you know, the kind we can expect from ambitious, talented women—Abigail’s increasing aggrandizement is motivated by a vicious, patriarchal class system, to which she intends never to bend the knee. She begins as a young, spirited, educated, beautiful woman who, despite her backstory–her father whored her out as a child for his benefit–still has faith in the possibility that she will be welcomed somewhere for her talent. That faith begins to erode from the first moment she presents herself at court to her cousin Sarah, the queen’s most trusted adviser, looking to be given a position that will save her from the kind of life she had with her father. Sarah, who provides Abigail with a vivid model of how to succeed in 18th century England, immediately exiles her to the lowest rung on the ladder, the scullery, a den of vipers, where women take their revenge on each other, and especially the “new girl,” for all the indignities they are forced to suffer. And when Abigail, motivated by kindness toward the ailing Queen, puts together a soothing poultice of herbs for her gout, Sarah’s first impulse is to punish her pretty cousin for ideas above her station. Or is it because her cousin IS pretty and charming? Even Sarah isn’t all that clear about her motivations at that point.

Sarah achieves clarity later, after Abigail wins her over, becomes upwardly mobile, and proves to be very good at reading the unwritten rules of the court, which is a free-for-all of lies, deceptions, and audacities. Abigail, thoughtful and well educated, quickly sees that in Anne’s court there is barely a moment for thoughtful consideration of the disaster of the War of the Spanish Succession, which is increasingly responsible for untold numbers of deaths and the threat of a crippling tax policy. She watches the men simply leap into the fray attempting to outsmart each other and Sarah in their efforts to influence Queen Anne toward forwarding their competing pro- and anti-war agendas. At first Abigail is amused by the darkly comic spectacle, made almost hilarious by the absurdly grotesque cosmetics and wigs used by men and women alike as part of the armor of court warfare. But then she makes the accidental discovery that Sarah’s power is based on the sexual pleasures she affords Anne. The shock of this recognition is the beginning Abigail’s march toward dominion and the end of her life as a caring, compassionate, sexually open human being. Little by little she apes Sarah’s practice of pitiless tyranny over the court, and ultimately bests Sarah in manipulation and seduction. Sarah takes steps against Abigail too late. She will never again be “the favourite” and her support for Lord Godolphin’s war machine crashes and burns. Abigail’s friendship with Lord Harley and his peace initiative now rule the day.


The film articulates a landscape in which an out-of-control Queen and similarly chaotic courtiers give new meaning to “serving at the pleasure of “ the monarch. You will judge for yourself to what degree the film ultimately plays into old cliches about the dangers of female sexuality (paging Lindsey Graham!). Or does it do the opposite? That is to say, does it chronicle the corruption of all life by deadly competitions within an abusive hierarchy, whether man or woman is in charge? You may also find yourself wondering how all of this reflects on what we have learned about the role of predatory sex in the confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh. Of course, the film was made well before these hearings and there is no intentional comment on them. But in a way the accidental confluence of sex and power then and now in movie and in political process makes more damning the sense that history is repeating itself in strange ways.

I find myself thinking anew of how disheartening it is that objections to Judge Kavanaugh’s lies and lack of objectivity when it comes to judicial findings on workers and corporations, the environment, and women’s health had no power to imperil his chances to sit on the Supreme Court. The only way to slow the Republican juggernaut was for one courageous woman to reveal Kavanaugh’s attempt to rape her. Does The Favourite, off-beat racy melodrama though it may be, have something serious and appalling to tell us about the role of sex in governments of all types? In the film, the sexual dynamic among Anne, Sarah, and Abigail made a mockery of monarchy as war and peace depended on which woman was diddling the Queen. At the very time that the film was being shown at the Walter Reader Theater, the fate of American democracy appeared to depend on whether the charges of sexual molestation raised by Christine Blasey Ford would make it impossible for a right wing ideologue to sit on the highest court in the land. Does that reflect what you were told about politics and history in school?

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