BFI London Film Festival ’18: ‘The Favourite’ Makes Scathing Commentary on the Frivolity of Royalty (Also, There’s Lesbian Activity)

It starts with a whisper, then a murmur, then a joyous shout. Spreading across the screening like waves disturbing still water, the chanting begins. Sapphics hold hands as they begin to activate their power, absorbing gay energy from the very presence of Rachel Weisz in a hunting outfit. They will now live forever, to spread a message of plaid and emotional detachment across the world.

“Let’s go lesbians,” yells the theatre, and all heterosexuality evaporates into dust.

I’m joking, of course, but that’s kinda what watching The Favourite felt like.

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Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in The Favourite (2018)

Yorgos Lanthimos is always an interesting director to watch, regardless of the topic he chooses to mull over in his work. Between incestuous families, deranged heart surgeons and Colin Farrell’s impressively shaped moustache, the greek auteur has provoked discussion on every level in his off-kilter projects, seemingly unaffected by social convention. In The Favourite, Lanthimos presents his most accessible work yet, whilst maintaining the odd dialogue-driven humour of his characteristic style – and tapping into an exquisite undercurrent of female homoeroticism.

Queenly courts have historically been a natural environment for the development of lesbian dynamics, and The Favourite plays on this accuracy, focusing on the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and the rivalry between two of her ladies-in-waiting, Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Lady Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) as they compete for her affections. Sarah is the original “favourite” of the childish and irritable queen – she has been there for most of her life, and assists her in a manner that oscillates between mother, teacher, and lover. “What do you look like?!” Sarah snaps after Queen Anne appears for a meeting with heavy make-up coating her eyes. “A badger.” Anne nods quietly, succumbing to the opinion of the more worldly woman, and re-iterating a power struggle entirely dependent on the idea that it is cruel to be kind. Sarah, despite her inferior status within the court, has Anne wrapped around her every word, and it is here that Abigail begins to pick at the seams of the Lady’s well-crafted control.

Abigail arrives at Court as Sarah’s disgraced cousin: after losing a bet, her father was forced to give her up at the age of fifteen. Now a young woman, Abigail is kind and innocently pretty, eager to help at a moment’s notice. Anne ignores her at first, entirely focused on her current favourite, but the dedication of the maid eventually intrigues her, and they bond over Abigail’s sympathy for Anne’s lost children, something that Sarah, in her stoicism, has rarely shown. These scenes suddenly recast Anne, previously a spoilt caricature, into a sad, lonely figure as Lanthimos injects humanity into his artificial, bizarre world of the Queen’s court. Through the universality of loneliness, we understand her unique search for validation.

Both a hilarious commentary on the frivolity of royalty and an engaging tale of obsessive love, The Favourite succeeds through its embrace of uniquely human themes. Jealousy, adoration, lust, rage and revenge all shine through a script drenched in satire, with Colman narrowly delivering the best of three exceptional performances by the leads. Backed by a score as regal and lavish as the court of Queen Anne, the set-pieces radiate with excess as elaborate wardrobe choices secure yet another Oscar nomination for costumer Sandy Powell. Lanthimos layers his distinctive style perfectly over this elegant landscape, creating a piece that is beautiful in its eccentricity. The multi-faceted nature of his work elevates The Favourite far and above labels of “quirky” or “stylised”, instead presenting three female characters who are brilliant in their extremity, and relatable in their moments of vulnerability.

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