What's your favourite: love or power?
Unless you're a historian, sitting down to watch a costume drama tends to ignite a glimmer of guilt: you should really listened more in school, shouldn’t you? Well, you needn’t worry when watching The Favourite, because even if you had been listening I'm pretty certain Queen Anne's penchant for a good fingering wouldn't have made it onto the "Year 5 Stuart History Project" display. More’s the pity.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite explores a love triangle between three extremely difficult, wildly idiosyncratic women; Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone). Colman doesn’t just shine as the lead but rather glows with frightening force — the hyper-likeable Olivia we know so well disappears entirely, leaving in her place the unpredictable, abrasive, and enigmatic Queen.
Astonishing visuals complement Colman’s glow: if you were to slice this film into stills, each one populated by Sandy Powell’s baroque-punk costumes and opulent architecture, each one could command an audience at the National Portrait Gallery.
But nevertheless, to call the The Favourite ‘pretty’ would be to undermine Lanthimos’ ability to cohere the form of this movie with its content. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s fish-eye lens reinforces the distorted reality of life inside those tapestried wall, ensuring this is no ordinary costume drama.
Throughout, Lanthimos directs boldly and without fear; he’s been extremely clear in interviews that the film blends facts and fiction but the most delicious thing about The Favourite is that every storyline the viewer might assume didn't happen absolutely did (you’ll know these moments when you see them). With that in mind, all the things we can't confirm as categorical fact feel pretty likely too.
The Favourite isn’t about timelines and chronology anyway: it’s about love, and the power that infects it. If you’re looking for a tender girl-on girl-coming of age story, this ain’t it. It’s been pitched as a historical romp, and, sure, there’s romping (like, loads) and yes, it’s hilarious (genuine full body lols, especially thanks to Nicholas Hoult), but the undeniable truth remains that The Favourite has a darkness at its core. These relationships aren’t born of a joyous place but a cavern where callous ambition and manipulation tactics breed faster than rabbits; it’s not love, it’s a situationship. That’s not to say that our gals don’t have a good time — they absolutely do, espesh in the library — but the stakes are toweringly high. Afterall, these aren’t ordinary people who only have only their hearts to break. This the ruling elite, and there’s politics, status and the fate of a country to consider.
That’s why The Favourite isn’t just a good film, it’s an important one. History — whether told in classrooms, cave walls or by word of mouth — is full of truth transformed to myth. With slapstick and sharp tongued wit, The Favourite suggests that the greatest myth of all is the notion that the most powerful in society — the rich white elites — have any idea what the fuck they’re doing. No scenes in the film extend beyond the palace grounds, reminding us that what Queen Anne has in terms of privilege, she lacks in perspective. The Favourite might be set circa 1714, but the gap between the powerful and their people remains much the same, lest we forget our own Queens recent speech about how we should all pull together, literally delivered while sat next to a gold piano.
This is a film for those suspicious that British history isn’t as prim, proper and patriarchal as the powers that be would have us believe. It’s clear that screenwriters Deborah Davies and Tony McNamara never set out to explicitly damn Queen Anne and her lovers but rather just reveal them to us. Queen Anne is lonely, selfish and grief stricken. She’s also deeply tender and yearning for love. Perhaps it’s just the sensation of being loved she desires — the power of it? She didn’t work to gain her status but was born into it; who would she be without that power, and would Sarah or Abigail care?
The Favourite throws up these and so many other questions, layering images of decadence and decay over a score composed so dramatically I swear I felt it in my chest. If we must have costume dramas, let more of them be like this; exposing, scandalising, and demanding an answer to the question ‘how far have we really come?’
What did you think of The Favourite? Let us know in the comments below.