Movie Review: The Favourite (2018)
About five minutes in, I went “Oh, right. Yorgos Lanthimos.”
The trailer makes it look more fun than a Yorgos Lanthimos movie. It lies. Trailers do that. In fact, as I was watching this, I began to think maybe trailers should only be made by the directors of the movies they promote. That way, we’d get their sensibility—the movie’s sensibility—rather than the marketing department’s. We’d get more original trailers and fewer lies.
So what’s a Yorgos Lanthimos movie like? Disturbing. Discordant. Often unnecessarily so. In an early scene in “The Favourite,” we slowly become aware that there’s a steady thrumming, thumping noise on the soundtrack. Occasionally there’s an urgency to it, as if it were warning us of some upcoming shock, but mostly it’s just there: constant and annoying and taking us out of the movie. To me, it sounds like a headache. It’s classic Yorgos.
That said, I mostly liked “The Favourite.” And I liked it more when I found out its characters were historical.
Stripped and whipped
Watching, I’d assumed this British queen, at war with France, with a powerful, Machiavellian Duchess whispering in one ear, and an equally Machiavellian servant girl whispering in the other, was a kind of fiction. It was England but not England—like Central Europe in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” It was Evergreen England.
But it’s the story of Queen Anne, the last ruler of the House of Stuart (Olivia Colman, brilliant), and her close friendship with Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who is, in the end, usurped as “power behind the throne” by her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone). The whole story is right there on Wikipedia:
Flattering, subtle and retiring, Abigail was the complete opposite of Sarah, who was dominating, blunt and scathing. During Sarah’s frequent absences from court, Abigail and Anne grew close; Abigail was not only happy to give the queen the kindness and compassion that Anne had longed for from Sarah, but she also never pressured the queen about politics...
In real life, the Duchess lost the battle but won the war. Queen Anne died in 1714, Abigail retired to a private life, and the Duchess lived another 30 years. In her memoirs, she writes dismissively of the Queen, which, some say, is why Anne has generally been discounted by historians:
She certainly meant well and was not a fool, but nobody can maintain that she was wise, nor entertaining in conversation. She was ignorant in everything but what the parsons had taught her when a child.
There's a bit of irony here. The bad words written by the Duchess are actually kind compared to what “The Favourite” does. In “The Favourite,” Anne is most definitely a fool: easily manipulated, whining, crying, caring nothing for the people around her. She’s concerned she’s fat but overeats and throws it up. She’s the original binge-and-purge girl. You know “The Godfather” edict—it’s not personal, it’s just business? Lanthimos’ Queen Anne is always personal. She's so uninterested in business she doesn’t even know her country is still at war.
Our lens through all this is Abigail, who arrives in court in a crowded carriage in which a man is masturbating in his trousers; then she’s literally pushed out of the carriage and into the mud. At the palace, she’s dressed down by the Duchess, who, enjoying her power, lingers over such moments like a cat with a mouse. Abigail is put to work as a scullery maid—assistant to the kitchen maid, the lowest possible position—where the other servants cackle when her hand is burned by lye. Several times, she’s literally kicked by men, who are more dangerous—or at least more comic—when they start acting lascivious. “I should have you stripped and whipped,” she’s told several times. How horrible the world is. How nice she is. Or seems.
For her burned hand, she makes a balm from plants she finds in the woods, and this turns out to be her in. The Queen suffers from gout, and the raw meat slapped on her swollen red joints does nothing, so Abigail arrives surreptitiously and applies the balm. It helps enough, and she insinuates herself enough into the conversation, to get herself noticed—less by the Queen and more by the Duchess, who senses that Abigail is more calculating than she seems. She's sees her as a lieutenant. But that's not how Abigail sees herself.
The movie then is about Abigail’s rise and Sarah’s fall. In her memoirs, or maybe just via her wicked tongue, the real Duchess implied Abigail was also the Queen’s lover. The movie does more than imply and tosses in the Duchess for good measure. Their wicked tongues are used for more than spreading gossip.
Much of the movie is funny, and most of the funny stuff—chiefly with the foolish Queen—wound up in the trailer. Colman is a treasure: the whole “look at me/don’t look at me/look at me” exchange. There’s even a moment when we feel for her—when, early on, Anne tells Abigail how she gave birth to 17 children and lost them all. Most were stillborn or died in infancy. One, Prince William, lived to age 11 before succumbing. It’s tough to imagine giving birth to 17 kids, let alone losing them all. For a moment, she seems like a human being. The moment passes.
I would’ve liked “The Favourite” more, I think, without Lanthimos’ singular, distracting discordancy and general showiness. Patricia, a graphic designer, a former art director, hated the typography that accompanied the film. She found it pointless, hard to read, and smug. She loved the women in all their awfulness.