If we could choose to have any superpower, it would be the ability to insult our enemies with cruel gusto the very moment we feel maligned. If you’d choose the same, consider “The Favourite” to be your new favorite superhero movie.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos is responsible for the lavish indignity parade, set among the labyrinthine power struggles of Queen Anne’s 18th century Great British court. Olivia Colman plays the monarch, who is more concerned with her self-image and 17 bunnies than whether or not she should perpetuate England’s war with France. At her side is Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), a savvy politician whose unorthodox techniques ― and enviably biting tongue ― keep the queen bending to her will.
Their cheery partnership is rudely interrupted, however, when Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) plops down in the mud of the royal property. A former noble who’s fallen on hard and desperate times, Abigail is seemingly eager to serve Sarah (her own relative) and work her way up from the bottom. That is, until she accidentally witnesses the depths of Sarah and Anne’s relationship and realizes she might have found herself a shortcut to the good life.
As Sarah and Abigail jockey for affronts and access, the queen struggles to discern whose intentions are pure. Delicious provocations, schemes and absolutely vicious verbal barbs ensue. Because “The Favourite” is as gorgeous and painful as a pair of 7-inch stilettos, HuffPost critics Zeba Blay and Priscilla Frank sat down to discuss its most glorious and disturbing moments together. The 18th century, we’ve decided, had its own summer of scam.
Zeba Blay: Priscilla! So we’re back, discussing the merits of yet another film for the moviegoing public, and I just have one question, yes or no: “The Favourite” is easily the feel-good movie on the year?
Priscilla Frank: Zeba! It’s been too long. I would give a resounding yes if it weren’t for the qualifier “feel-good.” Parts of this movie are so much fun. (Fun being directly correlated to the amount of bunnies, ducks and wigs in a given film. That’s just math.) But the suffering depicted and referenced from beginning to end made the experience of watching it a little more unsettling and rotten. The movie reminded me of what it felt like to trash-talk someone as a kid; thrilling and delicious and wretched all at once.
So, I guess I would say it’s easily the feel-giddy-and-sick movie of the year.
The film is based on the court of Queen Anne and her relationship with her right-hand woman, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. Are you a fan of period films? How do you think “The Favourite” gels with and/or defies what we expect of a period piece?
Zeba: I’m super familiar with the story of Queen Anne and I LOVE period films, so this was right up my alley. I think my favorite period films are the ones that are not super reverent to the genre, that don’t feel beholden to the time period they are set in (other than “Marie Antoinette,” which, for whatever reason, I really dislike). “The Favourite” is set in the 18th century and yet it feels incredibly modern. We have a tendency to act like the people of yesteryear led very different lives when, in fact, we have far more in common with them than we like to think. In that respect, the movie does such a good job of giving you all the period-specific aesthetics that we love (beautiful locations, delicately made costumes, etc.) with timeless dialogue and humor that captures the awkwardness and the ugliness of being human.
Even as it takes historical liberties, those liberties feel right and appropriate for the momentum of the story. Overall, I was really floored. What did you think?
Priscilla: I completely agree! I’m not a period film buff. Sometimes the genre’s characters feel like facsimiles of people; actors going through the motions of a historical script beefed up with Hollywood conventions. But I love how the characters in “The Favourite,” stripped of their wigs and petticoats, could live in any era. The wonky politics, dark humor and pettiness on display reminded me of “Veep,” which speaks to how timeless gossip and sick burns really are.
Let’s talk characters! First, there’s Queen Anne, a woman consumed by insecurity, fatigue, hunger and horniness. (I relate!) What did you think of Olivia Colman’s performance?
Zeba: Olivia Colman is an ACTUAL queen who can do no wrong in my eyes, especially in this movie. A lot of the laughs in this movie are supposed to be at her expense, but she did such an amazing job of adding pathos to the character, making her not just a buffoon but a woman with a complex and rather sad personal history. I honestly think my favorite scene of hers is the last scene of the movie. She really doesn’t say anything at all, and yet we see a glimpse of her that demonstrates a lot more depth, power and intelligence than all her preceding moments put together.
But don’t get me wrong ― her silliness was great, too. I love the moment when Lady Marlborough tells her she looks like a badger wearing her edgy new eye makeup and she has a mini-meltdown, yelling at one of the palace footmen, “Are you looking at me? Look at me! Don’t look at me. How dare you!” Most of all, what I loved about Colman’s performance is how it bounces off the performances of the other two leads in this movie, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. Rachel’s performance was whip smart and, again, so subtle in its execution. What did you think of Olivia and her chemistry with the other two women?
Priscilla: Yup, bring back the monarchy and make Colman queen. I couldn’t get over how powerful her physical performance was ― collapsing in front of Parliament, shoving down cake to promptly puke it back up (and eat some more! Yes, mama!), screaming in agony over her festering leg wounds ― she had the audience in the palm of her hand. Toward the end of the film, as Anne’s health takes a nosedive, I found it hard to even look at her. Her agony was so acutely palpable, you could see every word struggle to make its way out of her mouth. And Colman’s hair. Such great hair. I feel like Queen Anne would like to hear that.
Colman’s chemistry with the other two women was so captivating. There’s Sarah, played by Rachel Weisz, a controlling war hawk who either plays the queen like a fiddle or, perhaps, truly loves her. Then Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, Sarah’s cousin, who went from lady to scullery maid following her father’s mental breakdown and suicide. Abigail is cherubic, docile and eager to serve ― at least initially. She grows wily as she finds favor in the queen and fears her strides toward upward mobility could be ripped away. By the end of the film, Abigail’s made some pretty questionable ethical choices. Do you think the sugary sweet comportment we see initially was all an act? Or did you perceive her to be a good person corrupted by power?
Zeba: I think, like most things in this movie, it’s complicated. I think all those things could be true at once. I think Abigail has good in her, which she uses to her advantage because she’s also deeply aware of the fact that, as she states in the film, she’s on her own side ― always. I think power is such an interesting theme in this movie ― monarchical power, political power, social power, female power. Each of these women has a certain amount of that power, and they’re leveraging it in a society/time that expects very little of them. So many of Abigail’s moves are simply about restoring her position in society, but in order to do that, she has to navigate around her cousin, the queen, men. I find it fascinating. And I think we can analyze/question Lady Marlborough’s motives much the same way that we do Abigail’s ― it’s clear that the love and affection between Lady Marlborough and the queen are genuine, but at the same time it’s clear that she deeply covets the power that proximity to the queen gets her.
If anything, I think this movie is less about how power corrupts individuals and more about how power corrupts love itself. Does that make sense?
Priscilla: That does make sense! Though, for me, I was constantly questioning whether love was genuinely in the equation for any of them. When I first witnessed Anne and Sarah’s sexual relationship, I assumed that Anne had feelings for Sarah but that Sarah (who’s married to a high-ranking commander) was perfunctorily pleasuring the queen to more effectively manipulate her politically. When Abigail also strikes up a sexual relationship with the queen (and the man whom she eventually marries), it seems purely strategic. But when the queen chooses Abigail over Sarah, I wondered if she ever really loved Lady Malborough or was just looking for whoever would provide the most fawning adoration (and cunnilingus).
I didn’t really consider that Sarah might really love the queen until her final plea to get back in Anne’s favor, when she says, “I will not lie; that is love!” But even then, Sarah might just have been pulling out all the stops for her last shot at good standing. It could have been bullshit! I do like how all the characters remain morally ambiguous and concerned primarily with themselves. Their tangled motivations and emotions feel very human, especially in contrast to so many films that portray women as single-mindedly obsessed with finding love and maybe pursuing a career, too.
Another question: Sarah was determined to continue the war against the French, even though her husband was at its front lines. Do you think part of her wanted her husband to die (maybe a hint that she was deeply in love with Anne), or was she simply, as she stated, putting her country’s best interests at heart?
Zeba: I don’t think Sarah wanted her husband to die. I think the arrangement she has ― she married an equally ambitious man with whom, I think, she shares some mutual love and respect, and that relationship allows her to harbor deeper, more complicated and equally advantageous love for the queen ― is ideal for her. She’s a woman who is always playing chess, always calculating two, three moves in advance. Being the widow of a war hero would be just as good a look as being the wife of one, a win-win situation. I think the relationships that the female leads have with men are super interesting. There are the Duchess and Duke of Marlborough, and then there’s Abigail and her dalliances with Samuel Masham. When that first plays out, it seems like a genuine mutual attraction until, once again, we understand it to be a means to an end.
What did you think about Nicholas Hoult’s character, Robert Harley? I really detested/enjoyed him. I also thought there was a lot being said with his foppish/feminine exterior up against Sarah’s much more masculine attire.
Priscilla: Love, love, LOVE Harley. As you said, he embodies so many of the tropes we’re used to seeing with female characters. He’s this vain, beautiful sidekick who pops in to scheme, gossip and talk shit. And his exquisite insults are an art form. I did very much enjoy seeing men wear rouge and wigs, while women were more often bare-faced. Not just for feminism but because those boys look fine as hell! Also, I thought the makeup and costumery revealed just how narrow our contemporary gender expectations are. Machismo once looked very femme! Sarah’s androgynous attire was cripplingly sexy as well. Those leathery chaps she wears while practicing shooting, hot dayum.
OK, another thing: “The Favourite” serves its humor very dark, especially when addressing sensitive topics like rape and sexual assault. When Samuel comes into Abigail’s room at night, she asks, “Are you coming to seduce me or rape me?” When he responds, “I’m a gentleman,” Abigail says, “So, rape then.” How did you feel about those jokes?
Zeba: The first thing I said to my friend after walking out of the movie was, “What’s with all the rape stuff?” It’s true, there are a lot of off-color jokes having to do with rape and assault. At one point, Sarah is stranded at a brothel for several days and marvels that she wasn’t raped. Honestly, I’d have to watch it again to fully form my opinion. Part of me feels like these jokes really speak to women’s position in this society and the fact that they are always vulnerable to sexual violence. Another part of me feels like I might be giving the film too much credit. The jokes didn’t ruin the experience for me, but they definitely gave me pause.
Priscilla: I was also thrown by the rape stuff. I agree it spoke to the inevitability of sexual violence for women in the 18th century, especially for the lower classes. And it illuminated why, for Abigail, sex was something transactional rather than pleasurable or emotional. And there’s something potentially liberating about laughing in the face of something so traumatic and terrible, in effect minimizing its power. But... it was a lot. Especially in contrast to the gravity we now use to discuss sexual violence, which is still such a recent development.
Next, I want to talk about bunnies. Did this movie make you want to adopt 17 rabbits pronto? I don’t know if that was the intended effect (in fact, I think it’s safe to say, it definitely was not), but the movie gave me bunny fever.
Zeba: The bunnies were cute, but no. I don’t really like bunnies. I know, I’m a monster! But I liked the ducks?
Priscilla: The ducks were cute, too. But back to the bunnies (sorry), what did you make of the final scene, with the overlaid images of Anne, Abigail and all the bunnies?
Zeba: I thought it was absolutely beautiful and said so much with so little. Anne and Abigail have now trapped themselves in this dynamic ― they’re both kind of doomed ― but at the heart of that relationship is the pain and trauma Anne has experienced and will never really be able to fully process. That’s how I saw it. What did you think it represented, if anything?
Priscilla: Yup, I guess you could even say babies are to bunnies as Sarah is to Abigail. The former are the more difficult, the real deal, the fallible human connection, while the latter are the less painful but less emotionally fulfilling replacement. Abigail isn’t capable of loving Anne, and neither, obviously, are the bunnies. And seeing the bunnies replicate ad infinitum at the end just gives this feeling of claustrophobia and nausea. Like, this is all there is for you, forever.
Did you know going into the movie that the relationships between Anne, Sarah and Abigail would turn sexual? And what do you think of how the trailers for the film kept that detail hidden?
Zeba: I didn’t know that the sexual relationships between Anne, Sarah and Abigail would be part of the film, and I think if that detail was hidden from the trailers it wasn’t so much because the film wants to distance itself from the queer elements within it but just because when we find out that Anne and Sarah are lovers, it is a genuinely shocking moment/twist and plays a huge role in how the rest of the movie plays out. I don’t know why, but there were elements in this movie that reminded me of “The Handmaiden,” a film that I feel in a similar way doesn’t exploit or sensationalize its queer characters, even though sensational shit goes down. What do you think?
Priscilla: I also didn’t realize the relationships would get sexual and was thrilled by the twist. I love “The Handmaiden” but feel that was very much billed as a sexy, lesbian thriller, whereas “The Favourite” was more period, dark comedy. I think it’s great that movies can incorporate queer elements without it being the main draw or focal point of the film or its marketing. As a whole, though, the movie didn’t strike me as particularly erotic. I thought the scene with Abigail and Samuel flirting in the woods was sexy, and there are a few charged moments between Sarah and Anne that are hot. But, for the most part, sex is treated very much as a means to an end, either a mode of manipulation or a way to inflate one’s ego.
If you were to live in Queen Anne’s court, where would I find you? At the dance party, at the duck race, shooting pigeons, by the cake?
Zeba: Hmm, if you could find me in Queen Anne’s court it would probably be ANYWHERE THAT THERE’S FOOD PLEASE. The food in this movie, in addition to the fashion, had me losing my mind it looked so good. Even when it was gross, if that makes sense. Food and fashion, and I’m there. What about you?
Priscilla: I would definitely want to be involved in the choreographed dances. The bizarre routine with Samuel and Sarah was so incredible I want to perform that at every dinner party until I die.
Would you recommend “The Favourite”? And to whom?
Zeba: I would definitely recommend this film, specifically to people who say they aren’t into period pieces or people who say they hate Yorgos Lanthimos movies ― or both! ― because I think it makes for a pleasant surprise in both respects. It isn’t perfect, but it’s damn near, and the performances by all three leads are going to be some of the most talked about in the coming year. You?
Priscilla: Yes! This one’s for all the scammers and the queens! I hope it beats “A Star Is Born” in every Oscar category!
This has been “Should You Watch It?” a weekly examination of movies and TV worth ― or not worth! ― your time.