Not everyone is going to have the same opinions on works of art. Even when there appears to be a really common consensus on a story, or a creator of stories, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong if you personally don’t connect with them. Stories hit us all differently, and it’s perfectly acceptable to fin a story that you can see merit in, but that does virtually nothing for you, even if it seems like you’re fairly on your own in that respect. I bring this up because I’ve never really connected with the films of Yorgos Lanthimos. I completely see that they’re well-made and can mostly understand why other people are so into them, but they’ve left me incredibly cold. The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer both seemed interesting to me, but just weren’t for me. Which is fine. I just really wished that I could finally see something Lanthimos made that would be up my alley. So, when I learned about his latest film, the Favourite, I was intrigued but hesitant. It certainly seemed more my speed, if a little too broad, I just knew I’d been burnt before. It was garnering all the usual critical love that a Lanthimos movie usually did, but something about it seemed like it was going to finally break the trend that his movies had been building. And, thankfully it did. I’m not quite sure why this film worke where his other haven’t, but I dug the hell out of the Favourite.
The film tells the story of a woman named Abigail Hill. Her family was once quite prosperous in 18th Century England, but they’ve fallen on hard times, resulting in Abigail heading to the Court of Queen Anne, hoping to gain favor and employment from her cousin Sarah, who is Anne’s closest friend and confidant. Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, decides to take pity on her unfortunate cousin, and gets her a job as a maid in the manor. She begins to fulfill her duties, but after a day when Queen Anne is struck with terrible gout pain, she decides to make a change. Abigail heads into the woods and finds an herb she believes will make a poultice that will soothe her. And, it does. Anne is given a modicum of comfort, and becomes interested in Abigail. So, always on the look for a way to solidify her power over Anne, Sarah decides to promote Abigail to being her personal assistant, in charge of keeping Anne as happy and content as possible. Which gives the two cousins time to bond, and lets Abigail see just how important Sarah is. Anne really has no idea what she’s doing, and just seems to be interested in doing whatever she wants, leaving Sarah to essentially run the country. Parliment does a lot of the work, and there’s a constant battle between Prime Minister Godolphin and the leader of the opposition party, Robert Harley, there’s a war with France going on that’s proving to be incredibly unpopular, and Anne is completely unequipped to handle any of it, leading to a lot of scheming.
Harley is always trying to get Abigail to become his spy on the inside, Sarah is constantly putting more power for herself and her husband, and Abigail has begun to realize she’s going to need to be a little more ruthless if she’s going to survive. So, she begins trying to find ways to supplant Sarah. She learns that Sarah isn’t only Anne’s best friend, but also her lover, and with that knowledge she begins befriending Anne in the hopes that she’ll be able to seduce her as well. And, this plan ends up going quite well. She’s able to rise in Anne’s opinions, and starts to even supersede Sarah as Anne’s favorite. Unfortunately, Sarah begins to realize what’s happening, and does everything she can to bring Abigail down, stopping her from taking her own power. This doesn’t really work though, because even though Sarah fires Abigail as her assistant, Anne just picks her up as her own personal maid. And, after the attack, Abigail decides she really needs to kick things into gear. She drugs Sarah one day before she goes for a ride, causing her to pass out and get dragged by her horse, vanishing for several days. But, Anne decides not to care, since she’s had a slight falling out with Sarah. And, in that brief respite, Abigail starts moving. She gets Anne to allow her to marry a Lord, and personal friend of Harley’s, giving her stability and her old way of life back in exchange for Abigail pushing Anne to end the way and put Harley in charge of the government. Sarah eventually heals though, and is able to return to Court, shocked to find how things have gone. She then over-plays her hand, and attempt to regain her role by blackmailing Anne about their relationship. This backfires, and Sarah eventually is excommunicated from the Court, and after Abigail prods her a little further, Sarah and her husband are banished from England itself. And, just like that, Abigail has won. She’s become Queen Anne’s favorite, and is then left alone with the realization that the rest of her life is going to revolve around the whims of this narcissistic despot, just to keep herself alive.
I really wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I went into this film, but it ended up exceeding whatever expectations I managed to string together. Because this film really isn’t like anything else I’ve ever seen before. It’s full a full-on period costume drama, full of lavish outfits, gorgeous set-design, and the omnipresent reminder that the people who run the world have always been rich assholes. But, it’s also full of crude jokes, truly remarkable insults, and an off the wall sense of humor that really blew me away. And it certainly helps that we’re given a trio of truly remarkable performances, bringing the struggle and lives of these three women so vivid life, full of their insecurities, their pride, and their power. So often these sorts of period pieces become rather stodgy, assuming that the people of the past, in their ancient manors and sophisticated dress, were somehow less petty, obnoxious, and unpleasant than the people of the present. But this film did away with that pitfall, and portrayed the aristocracy as they more than likely actually were. Just a bunch of rich assholes who didn’t know what they were doing and were constantly scheming at how to get more power. It’s a gorgeous film full of unpleasantness, stripping away the rose-colored glasses we so often view the past with and letting us wallow in it.
Because that’s the way the world has always been. It’s become incredibly prescient in recent years with the horrible way America is being run, and the shockingly visible way that we’re able to see the inherent dysfunction of the ruling class, but this is always how the world has worked. We put people in positions of power who have no idea what to do, and end up being more interested in their own personal happiness, and then let a series of power-mad sycophants take over, mostly for their own gain. And that’s how it’s always been. Anne is a person in way over their head, who has no idea what she’s doing, and who has been put in a position of unlimited power, with basically no one to tell her what not to do. And, she gets completely conned by two women who see that narcissism and insecurity and find a way to use it for their own gain. Sarah ends up being someone who pulls Anne’s strings for her own gain, but also to get things done. She has an opinion on how England and the world at large should be led, and is doing everything she can to accomplish that. Abigail meanwhile is only interested in pulling the strings for self-preservation. She couldn’t care less about the actual running of the country, and as a result lets Anne just fade away in that respect, leaving things to other opportunists like Harley. There will always be people willing to pull a simple leader’s strings, we just have to hope that maybe they also want what’s best for the world too.
The Favourite was written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, directed by Yorgos Lanthimas, and released by Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2018.
Categories: Reel Talk