I wouldn’t be the first to compare The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’ neurotic, deliciously acrid comedy of manners, to All About Eve, Joseph Mankiewicz’ indelible and nasty-minded unclothing of the entertainment industry. Such a comparison effectively stitches the connection between royalty and celebrity, a stitch which Lanthimos then unthreads (or shears to pieces) via his total and unmitigated assault on the prefabricated identities the women at the heart of this royal chess-match mock-up to hide their devious underbellies. But, although there may be some imaginative kinship between the films, even by those standards, Lanthimos’ brew of irony and sheer cinematographic morbidity constitute an act of cinematic sabotage that feels totally unique.
Although it has precedents – even among Lanthimos’ own films – the indeterminate coordinates of sexual deception in this choreographed pageant of political misdirection constitutes not only an image of personal identity interfered with by the machinations of others but a truly vicious darkening of the moral edges. Or a lowering of the lights into a depiction of cloistered Royalty that seems to be occurring in some particularly regal ring of hell. And I mean darkening quite literally. Although Lanthimos turns his eye to the tight-lipped and equally predatory theater of the British aristocracy, he somehow one-ups Mankiewicz’ film at least cinematically speaking by corrosively throwing enough visual bile in Robbie Ryan’s gloriously gross cinematography to keep up with the vicious barbs hurled from every character in the film. The Favourite is a truly cynical, predatory film, a closed-door masquerade of fluid power dynamics and curdled souls to rival last year’s Phantom Thread.
But while Paul Thomas Anderson’s film was a devious parlour trick, effusing a spellbinding and sinister gloriousness and erecting a tricky beauty that revealed in its ultimate diaphanousness the fragility of the characters’ composure and the façade of ease they’d erected around them, The Favourite’s visuals, like its screenplay, makes no bones about where its ultimately headed: right for your throat. For the self-serving characters at the heart of The Favourite, intersubjectivity is the opposite of a democratic awakening: a moral and existential impasse.
Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara with an unapologetically candid, cruel temperament, The Favourite is a (deeply tenuous) history-play, aiming for a trans-historical vision of social theatrics and gender power-plays rather than a precise glimpse of life in the British aristocracy circa the nominal setting of 1711. Certainly, the screenplay is historically accurate insofar a woman named Queen Anne replaced Sarah Churchill with Abigail Hill as keep of her royal purse at some point in 1711. But there’s little reason to compare any of those figures to the women played by Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone, respectively, in this film, or to compare to anti-war parliamentarian Robert Harley to the brutal, pompous figure essayed by a wonderful Nicholas Hoult here.
Rather than period accuracy, then, The Favourite’s vision of history is both self-consciously artificial and all-too-true. Rather than imagining a telos that shows us how far we’ve come or providing an evidentiary portrait of the past to contrapuntally expose our own superiority in the present, The Favourite is an image of time as standstill, one in which the individualistic, self-serving epistemological regimes of the past are all too familiar.
And, it should be mentioned, almost unbearably entertaining, one of the most indignantly written and performed theater-plays of 2018 allowed to descend to hellish new visual depths courtesy of Robbie Ryan and Lanthimos’ visual sensibility. Exposing the characters’ neuroses and dropping into the pit of abjection, the film conjures the royal palace as a brutally under-lit limbo of disconnected rooms and hallways where anyone – most of all the film audience – can opportunistically surveil the other characters, even as those spaces double as suffocating confines that alienate every single figure in the film while exemplifying how disconnected they are from anyone other than the machinations of their own mind.
If the incredibly demonic lighting weren’t enough, Lanthimos and Robbie Ryan conjure perhaps the most gloriously dysfunctional cinematic architecture of the year, imagining the Royal Palace not as a stable, dignified edifice but a truly unhealthy carnival funhouse, a hall of abject mirrors. Every maniacal camera angle seems a portal into a pit of supremely neurotic discomfort, wider-than-wide fish-eye lenses warping the space beyond human recognition. With every step, the characters seem to have to fight the camera itself, but because the images externalize the ghoulish personas the characters must adopt to survive in this free-for-all, it also seems to mock them with their own turmoil. And that’s not even the half of it. Fiona Crombie’s hyperbolically excessive production design and, especially, Sandy Powell’s costuming practically measure the pace, tempo, and temperature of the film all on their lonesome, surrounding the characters in affected corsets that contour the grotesque eccentricities of biliousness they effuse, frequently while feigning utmost compassion.
It’s a hilariously devastating elixir, and one stirred by women as well. In the midst of increasing calls to empower women on screen, and the often attendant assumption that narrative “agency” rather than emotional “complication” are the metrics by which empowerment should be measured, The Favourite has it both ways. Viciously aware of the confines of paternalism lying within the society it depicts, a patriarchy often crossing into the film’s eyesight and legitimizing the nefarious activities of its central troika of women with a nihilistic glee, The Favourite is ultimately the tale of what women have to do in the cesspit of high society to survive. As Sarah and Abigail jockey for power, both among the men and each other, and court Queen Anne’s fancy and pride-of-place, the film does scrutinize the texture of social power dynamics around them, but it crucially grants the women no heroism. It considers social success not as a pedestal to aspire to in order to exert “agency” but as a cutthroat contest of personal willpower and sacrifice.
And personal revelation, insofar as the film’s excessive brutality ultimately evokes not only cruelty but genuine pity, a lament that these women have no other option, and that their minds are both excessively capable of competing with one another and, if society allowed them other options, entirely able to exceed a mere cinematic economy of “skill”. They may best every man in the film for devious competence, but the film is more-so the tale of the fundamentally immoral game they’ve been forced to play rather than a toast to their ability to play it so well. This is the story of their tragedy, not only their ability. Indeed, contouring the origins of Enlightenment notions of rational individual action, it suggests that the two are essentially inseparable.
This is especially true for Colman’s Anne, as phenomenally incisive as Weisz’s barbs and Stone’s reaction shots are (it’s easily the best Stone has ever been in a feature film). Playing a tormented, beaten-down woman slipping shards of viciousness into the most nominally bruised and innocent sentences as intimations of her steely reserve, Colman chases her ostensible fragility with a thick shadow of nasty, selfish competence masquerading as frailty, layering folds and folds of non-heroic capability into her character. As (or more) enticing than her competence is the question of her resolve, the absurd and often unreadable sublimity of the personality she adopts. She’s a ridiculous, at times gross character, initially a caricature. But, like every woman here, she demands that we take the position of a witness in a social theater, questioning how much control she may actually be exerting even while masquerading as a portrait of sheer abjection. Reading the lines of her face in service of divulging unlikely, perhaps contradictory truths about identity is a marker of the film’s humility, Colman’s vivacity, and Anne’s curiosity, a vision of a character who exists in excess of the film’s capacity to truly understand her.
There’s no moral mapping here, no elevation of Anne above or below any other figure in the film. And, until its achingly sad, bitterly humorous final scene (the best of the year), there’s no illusion of psychological access either, no omniscient sense of a film above or beyond the characters. Although the camera traps them, it cannot truly know them, nor can it defy their opacity, their ability to trick and tease the camera much as they do to each other. With its regal bonafides, The Favourite almost plays like Lanthimos’ nasty-minded take-down of the Oscarbait disease, draping itself in all the façades of Oscar’s favorite picture and then ruefully and mordantly kicking award’s season down to size. But if a disease the Oscars be, the medicine The Favourite offers is not only a most cruel screenplay and a truly disturbing and deeply dislocating visual sensibility, but the awareness that the most textured, empowering characters are not those who fulfill iconographic roles in a narrative of achievement but, rather, one’s who bedevil those narratives and disturb a film’s capacity to reduce them to typographic status.