Costume dramas were essential during the early days of the studio system. Expensive to produce, their returns at the box office were always reliable. Perhaps it is their window to the past that we all wish to look through. Are we not all historians carrying the scroll of our lives hoping someone will read it? The social media boom validates this sentiment a little too well and perhaps too much. And then I recall All About Eve (1950, dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz). The film stars Bette Davis as a powerful but waning stage actress and the young ingenue who wants to fill her shoes. Our pervasive envy for celebrities is nothing new but the glitz and glamour of Hollywood is more than just dollars earned each year. What people seem to have always craved is recognition. Back then, for accomplishments as a whole, now, for every moment. An actor’s life seems effortless, easy, full of glamorous parties and cozy trailers on set. People rarely see past the facade of fame, which leads me to The Favourite.
The film is not simply about a servant determined to rise through the ranks of aristocracy. There are three principal characters vying for each other’s attention and ours. Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) is Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) hard-nosed “chief of staff”, running the country while the frail monarch is made to feel comfortable in the next room as war rages throughout the country. The Queen and Sarah’s relationship is both business and pleasure and soon it becomes clear the two are infatuated with each other behind closed doors. The period drama’s rawness in it’s uncharacteristic portrayal of relationships is what I enjoyed most about the film. The Queen sits high atop the food chain of 18th century England. As her mental and physical health declines, the public’s perception of her office must never dwindle in these difficult times. Thus, the understanding throughout the palace is that an executer of orders must be retained and Sarah fills that role, handling day-to-day operations. The Queen is never cut out of the conversation but is strong-armed enough for us to know where the real power lies within the administration. The Queen and Lady Sarah are happy enough in their arrangement until a young servant arrives at their door. Enter Abigail (Emma Stone).
The tale of a conniving servant determined to take down her superior is as old as time; Abigail, however, is new. She is one of the more diabolical characters I have seen in a long time; expertly vicious, as calculating as a viper. We, the audience, are fooled upon her arrival to the palace in her quest to reclaim status in society. She is immediately taken in but banished to the life of servitude amongst others where she feels out of place. The bold nature of her character immediately made clear as she plots her swift ascension from the bowels of the kitchen to become Sarah’s personal attendant. Soon, the complicated relationship between Queen Anne and Sara is thrown into total upheaval after Abigail discovers it’s true nature and uses this information to further her endeavors. As Abigail oversteps her boundaries at every turn, she accepts her punishment as an investment and thrusts herself between The Queen and Sara.
The film’s landscape is so gritty, so raw, it is a constant reminder of the technological luxuries we all take for granted. The rooms are illuminated with sunlight during the day and only seen by candlelight at night. The floorboards creak. The mud on everyone’s face is very real. It is the perfect portrayal of the times for any historian to take comfort in. Like his other films, director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) offers no sympathies outside of his creative vision. His world is a harsh reality for the audience. Here, in the case of 18th century England, he does his best work to date. In an era with death, disease, and disparity, Lanthimos embraces the times. The film is perfectly nuanced; every dirty tail feather in the right place. Also characteristic of his style, the film is without a traditional protagonist; one that you genuinely root for to “win”. Queen Anne has our sympathies, as well as Lady Sarah, as their lives are thrown into upheaval by Abigail, but each character is as vile and jealous as the next. The humor of the film is pitch black. It’s events are very serious but never forced. The relationships between the three women is more important than the fate of the country. Lanthimos will take you anywhere, no matter how cynical the outcome. A perfectly crafted film begs the viewer to see more without ever guessing what happens next. The Favourite is a costume drama that stings.
— Nathan Robert Blackburn