The Favourite (2018): Subverting expectations of the genre.
Leo Braudy in an essay about genre films from The World in a Frame writes, ‘Because of the expectations- how a plot should work, what a stereotyped character should do, what a gesture, a location, an allusion, a line of dialogue should mean-the genre film can step beyond the moment of its existence and play against its own aesthetic history’.
After watching the 2018 historical period comedy-drama, The Favourite, I was able to better comprehend what this statement was referring to. When I decided to watch The Favourite, I went in expecting a regular period drama, with elaborate costumes, sophisticated characters, and a few bits of comedy sprinkled in for good measure, as in the case of the 2010 Academy Award for Best Motion Picture winner, The King’s Speech or the recent Victoria and Abdul. In some ways, my expectations were met, the costume work for The Favourite by Sandy Powell is elaborate, and oh so pretty! but this film is by no means a regular period drama. In the simplest of terms, it’s a love triangle, set in the backdrop of the 18th-century war, with some laugh-out-loud moments, which basically flips the period drama genre on its head, and has a lot of fun while doing so. Based in the early 18thcentury, this film is a fictionalized version of a real-life story.
When Abigail Masham ( portrayed by the extremely talented Emma Stone), joins the kingdom of Queen Anne ( Olivia Coleman) as a chambermaid, she starts working her way up the ranks. This disturbs the dynamics of the relationship between the Queen and her lover ( yes, you read it correctly), advisor and confidant, Sarah Churchill( Rachel Weisz). Sarah is the Dutchess of Marlborough, while her husband leads the country on the war-front, during Britain’s ongoing war with France, she aids the bereaving queen, who is suffering from gout and is constantly in pain( physically and emotionally).
With Abigail’s entry into this already complicated dynamic, things begin to heat up, and as the narrative progresses, it turns into a vicious political power play that is delightful to watch. The three actresses work in perfect harmony, never missing a beat, Olivia Coleman recently won a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Award for her performance, but for me, it was Emma Stone who stood out, she is definitely my ‘Favourite’ of the three ( see what I did there?).
Here the men have little to do,Nicholas Hoult stars as Robert Harley, a landowner, who tries his best to undermine Sarah’s influence over the Queen, and Mark Gatiss plays John Churchill ( Sarah’s husband). Great characters can go a long way for any story, such is the case with all the three women who drive this drama. Each one of them is a complex and layered character, which sad as it is, is a rarity in films. Instead of reducing them to good or bad, the writing by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara paints them with shades of grey. These are real women, women with desire, passion, anger, fear, pain, they are flawed, and despite their existence in the patriarchal society, which the film doesn’t shy away from acknowledging, they aren’t reduced to victims. Each one of them is powerful in her own right, navigating their way through an unreliable and cruel world.
Due to the way these characters are written, as the story progresses, we are never sure, whom to root for. This is what makes the almost 2 hr runtime of the film a really unexpected journey. During the first half, Abigail’s character, the underdog with a tragic backstory seems like the obvious choice for the ‘heroine’, the one we should trust, while Sarah comes across as the privileged cunning and manipulative villainess, who is using Queen Anne for personal and political gains.
After some time, we can’t be so sure, as Abigail starts lying through her teeth to get what she wants, and despite all her rough edges, Sarah genuinely seems to care for Anne. The third player in this game of thrones, the queen herself, initially comes off as eccentric at times downright crazy, but when you peel beneath the layers, this is a woman who has suffered great loss( she has had 17 unsuccessful pregnancies), trying to find a way to cope, and despite all her seeming fragility, she exudes an undeniable power and fierceness, which is especially evident in the harrowing climatic sequence.
I was personally very intrigued by the relationship dynamics between the Queen and Sarah, it was a confusing dynamic, but in some ways, it was grounded in reality. In one of the best moments from the film, Sarah tells the Queen, “Sometimes, you look like a badger, and you can rely on me to tell you”, the queen asks, why? to which Sarah responds, “Because I will not lie, that is love.” This sums up their entire dynamic for me, it is an odd combination of codependency, dominance and manipulation, but at its core, there is a genuine concern, an honesty of emotions, an odd brand of love. The direction is by Yorgos Lanthimos, a greek director, whose previous work, I am highly unfamiliar with, a situation I fully intend to rectify. But if this is the film that finally gets him into the spotlight, what a great way to arrive.
He uses the fish-eye perspective shots, a lot, which I didn’t know could be a signature shot for a filmmaker, because it can be a bit jarring, but in the context of the film, worked in drawing attention towards the beautiful royal set pieces. I can’t say much about this though, because I was a bit too preoccupied with the story and the characters, to be able to clearly asses the framing of shots. All of this makes for a carefully crafted and unexpectedly hilarious narrative, which slowly converges into a tragic commentary on the nature of power, and the things we are willing to do for it, without ever considering the impact. While it is funny, full of swear words and absurd sequences( duck racing, a fat guy being attacked with tomatoes), none of it is light, there is always a darker undertone lurking into the picture. The Queen’s decisions regarding the ongoing war are controlled by Sarah and Abigail, on the face of it, its fun to watch the way it all plays out, on the deeper level, we can’t help but wonder the impact these women are having on the lives of thousands involved in this war, for their individual gains and in the end, was it all worth it?
While I can’t promise you would love it as much as I do, because it can come off as snobbish at times, I personally loved it and would recommend watching it.