The monarch in question is Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), gout sufferer and mother to 17 children, all of whom were miscarriages or died shortly after birth. The queen begins in the thrall of Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), her friend and ally since they were both aristocratic children. Sarah effectively rules in Anne’s name, thwarting the will of Parliament and dictating an ongoing war with the French as if it were she who god laid the crown upon. This is all fine with Anne as long as Sarah visits often to chat and play with her many rabbits, one for each of her dead children. The equilibrium is upended upon the arrival of Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a distant cousin who’s fallen on hard times after her father squandered the family wealth and status. Sarah takes pity on her and allows her a position in the palace, where she endears herself to Anne with a salve for the regent’s gouty legs. When Abigail learns the romantic truth of Anne and Sarah’s relationship, she’s further emboldened to replace Sarah as Anne’s favourite and return herself to a place of pride and position.
The men that surround the film’s main trio of women aren’t quite useless, but they are comfortably in the back seat, jockeying for power without trying to usurp it. The most forceful of these is Nicholas Hoult’s Robert Harley, a member of Parliament as formidable as he is perfumed. Frequently jousting with Sarah over the war and its pricey continuation, Harley is perpetually frustrated by Sarah’s utter dominance of him as long as she speaks for the queen. Sarah’s own husband John (Mark Gatiss) spends most of the film away with the military, an arrangement that suits Sarah fine. As a young chamber maid, Abigail attracts plenty of unwanted male attention, mostly from the dullard baron Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) who engages in a clumsy courtship with her at Harley’s prompting.
As entertaining as Alwyn and Hoult are in their roles, The Favourite belongs to the women. Featuring some of the most concentrated female acting power of recent memory, each of the main three could credibly vie for the film’s best performance, though I’m partial to Weisz as she cements her place in Lanthimos’ repertory company after this and her turn in The Lobster. Her voice, with its flinty edges and dismissive connotations, is perfect for this film and a character who wields power as naturally as if it were her own limbs. Her confrontations with Harley end with the much taller man looming over her, further augmented by platforms in his shoes and a foot-tall wig, but instead of being intimidating, he only comes off as pathetic against Sarah’s impassive façade. Not usually one for praising costumes, but this viewer has been taken aback by Sarah’s outfits since the trailers for The Favourite first broke a year ago, particularly her skeet-shooting attire that looks like something out of a painting hanging in the Louvre. Even as the character goes through physical trials, she never loses her contempt for time-wasting questions or her considerable dignity.
Stone’s Abigail is introduced with the opposite of dignity, crammed into a stagecoach opposite a man masturbating to the sight of her. She soon thereafter finds herself face down in mud mixed with human shit, but from these humble beginnings, Abigail’s going places thanks to her conniving ingenuity. It wouldn’t be a Lanthimos movie without some self-harm, and that’s only one stop Abigail is willing to make if it moves her up the ladder. Stone invests her with pathos in her early scenes as she recounts the depths she fell to after her father’s demise, and while she becomes a grasping climber, that pathos remains even as the character surprises herself with the lengths she’s willing to go to. It also helps that she’s very funny when fending off Masham’s advances, and also clever in how she shapes her story to its audience. To the more vulnerable queen, Abigail says she was raped after her father could no longer protect her, while she tells the independent Sarah that she fought off her attackers. Either scenario is plausible, or it all might be a lie. Stone, who has to affect an English accent on top of the considerable physical demands of the role, is off-brand from her earnest ingenue roles, and this canny striver suits her better.
As the object of Abigail’s and Sarah’s affections, Queen Anne is many things. Colman comfortably plays the futility and the incompetence of the character with comic mastery, whether she’s vomiting cake into a servant-held receptacle or panicking in front of Parliament. A lesser actor and a dumber movie would have left the character as exactly that, an empty vessel ignorant of her power except when she’s abusing it. Instead, Anne is the font of the film’s primary emotional thrust, a tragic figure instead of a hapless one. Though she loves Sarah as a friend and confidant, she’s cognizant of how tainted their relationship is thanks to all the ancillary benefits Sarah reaps from it. If she can’t trust this person, who she still vividly remembers first meeting as a girl, then there’s no one for her. Her purest relationships are with her rabbits, each representing a dead child, but she would plainly prefer to have the kid around. A standout scene that, again, would already be great if it was just Sarah and Masham dancing at a ball in increasingly outrageous styles, shifts focus back to Anne, watching in her wheelchair as a hundred different emotions and impulses roll across her face. Colman gives the most vulnerable performance of the three women, as that state is foreign to Sarah and feigned by Abigail.
Lanthimos and the writers completely leave out the people impacted by the characters’ machinations. The war is far away, and its prosecution rests on whether or not Sarah, who’s in favor of continuing it and levying taxes on landowners to pay for it, or Harley, who’s against it and doesn’t want to pay landowner’s taxes, are in the ascendant. Lives are at stake over who can say the nicer thing about a sad woman’s rabbits. Monarchy has rarely been as ridiculous as it’s depicted in The Favourite, but it’s not like petty rulers don’t exist at all strata of society, including, tragically, in the persona of a democratically-elected man who can’t get the tanning lotion to coat the undersides of his eyes. The Favourite might take place hundreds of years ago, but I think the average citizen would be shocked at how much can pivot on the insubstantial vagaries of how powerful people are feeling today. If these are the rules we abide by, we need a Lanthimos to make us reconsider. A