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Relationships are complicated. Some exist out of necessity: we befriend those in our department at work to ease our daily lives and to make sure no one thinks we’re axe murderers (just in case). But other connections are more genuine: two ships passing in the night that decide to alter their courses for the sake of repeat interaction and the joy that comes with familiarity. Sometimes, if we are lucky, those ships are in tandem for decades.
The Favourite is a study in the excitement of a new ship and the hopes of shared future journeys, as well as a lesson in ship-to-ship etiquette.
We begin in the sunlight of a time-tested relationship: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) giggling about the palace grounds. Two women very much shaped by the politics of their time, the Queen and her childhood best friend navigate the political atmosphere of the 1700s: Star Wars, but make it baroque.
The Queen suffers from gout, the trauma of 17(!) miscarriages, and being the unquestioned monarch appointed by God to lead the people of England in a time of war. Lady Marlborough suffers from having to perform the duties of a head of state – balancing the national budget and seeing to the armies in the field fighting France, all while being second guessed and denigrated for having to sit down to pee.
But then suddenly, an Emma Stone appears.
After literally being shoved out of a carriage face first into the dirt (which is more shit than dirt, if we’re being honest), Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives. Once a woman of means, now impoverished by her father’s reckless gambling, she comes to her cousin (Lady Marlborough) looking for work as a maid in the palace.
Having been granted a job, Abigail is initially treated much like a police officer serving time in gen pop: she is abused eagerly as punishment for having a taste of life in a higher station. But you can’t keep an educated woman of class down, not as long as there is a difficult-to-treat case of gout and a non-uniform understanding of herbal medicine.
Abigail grew up in household of means, so as well as a knowledge of Greek and Latin, she is also aware of how to read a room and make herself invaluable to the mercurial queen of her nation. This begins a power struggle between the Lady Marlborough and Abigail.
Each of the three women suffers in different ways in their search for safety and happiness: Queen Anne deals with the trauma of losing 17 children by keeping rabbits and naming them after the children she has lost, while Lady Marlborough conducts herself like a man of the age: wearing pants, shooting guns, and condescending to the women around her. Abigail, motivated by a desperate need to escape poverty, takes the cuckoo’s approach. But will Lady Marlborough notice the foreign eggs in her nest?
Lanthimos employs a fairly straightforward approach in the telling of this based-on-a-true story. Mostly what is depicted onscreen is free from the need of interpretation or dissection of intent. Characters often say precisely what they mean, and the camerawork plays no tricks on us.
However, Lanthimos enjoys playing with gender roles by highlighting what was expected of men and women of the time. The women are often shooting skeet while the men fancy about throwing oranges at their nude friends and scampering about after women. Lady Marlborough says she will “make a killer [of Abigail] yet” when discussing how to behave in the palace. Meanwhile, a (male) member of Parliament says, verbatim, that “a man must look pretty” and is received by resounding agreement. It should be noted that this is the time when high heeled shoes were invented, initially to be worn by men. Enormous wigs, white faces, and rouge were also in fashion for men. This is just a reminder that gender is a construct and that you can do whatever you want.
The Favourite is an examination of the ways in which different kinds of humans have been forced to secure and navigate power. It is also a great opportunity to watch Olivia Colman face act, surrounded by the suffocating décor of the 1700s and of the loneliness at the top. It is a movie about the crushing reality of getting precisely what you want and what happens when you realize it was not all you assumed it would be. It also about ladies in pretty dresses kissing in secret, which is always fun.
The Favourite screens starting Thursday, January 18th.
Thursday, Jan 18th – 8pm
Friday, Jan 19th – 7:30pm
Saturday, Jan 20th – 7:30pm