Reaction Weekend

The Favourite – why it works

BY Alastair Benn | alastair_benn   /  11 January 2019

“Illness, death, renunciation of enjoyment, restrictions on his own will, shall not tough him; the laws of nature and of society shall be abrogated in his favour; he shall once more really be the centre and core of creation – ‘His Majesty, the baby’, as we once fancied ourselves.” So runs Freud’s famous commentary on the propensity of parents to live vicariously through their children. Like so much of Freud, it’s fun to imagine that in every pushy dad, angry that his boy isn’t in the first team, there is an infant mewling for its mother’s milk.

Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’s new release The Favourite is a neat inversion of Freud’s dictum. The figure of the ‘good’ parent unconsciously playing out and projecting childhood fantasies onto the blank canvas of the baby figure is twisted into Queen Anne, who scoffs cake until she is sick to the stomach, quickly infuses with anger at an unfollowed order (“Don’t look at me”, she screams at a nonplussed page boy), streams tears from her eyes one moment, beams happily with delight the next: her Majesty, the baby, all in one.

Lanthimos’s ugly concoction of power, infantile urges and grotesquery is sweetened by a good deal of pathos – Anne has miscarried seventeen times and has no heir. Deprived of her proper maternal role, she keeps seventeen rabbits as substitute children, no cheerier than when she is fondling them, cooing over them, letting them free to skip around her chambers.

History is kept just off stage – the childlessness of Queen Anne ushered in the Hanoverian ascendancy, bringing her second cousin George I to the throne on her death. Nothing less than the birth of modern British politics is twisted concertina-style into this fantastical image of the Queen, a vast hysterical woman-baby, reduced to gushing, overwhelming emotion by her litter of ambling playthings.

The plot follows the machinations of Queen Anne’s court, as two of her ladies-in-waiting compete to be The Favourite – Emma Stone plays Abigail, who arrives at court a down-at-heel nouveau pauvre aristocrat reduced to servant status; while Rachel Weisz is Sarah, an all-powerful lady-in-waiting, in total control over Queen Anne, dictating royal policy by day, by night mastering Anne’s body and her carnal desires.

Stone’s Abigail quickly worms her way into the Queen’s confidence, and soon her bed too. A delicious interplay between Weisz and Stone follows, both locked into the shifting affections of the baby-monarch, fey and fickle and sentimental all at once.

The male characters are by contrast weak, easily deceived, and dreadfully obvious – in a memorable scene, Abigail knees her suitor Samuel Masham, played by Joe Alwyn, in the balls as he attempts to flirt by… jumping out at her from behind a tree and then chasing her about. Plus ça change, eh?

The politicians Godolphin (played by James Smith) and Harley (Nicholas Hoult) are men of high status but are really pale imitations of the devastating vitality of Abigail and Sarah. There is a war going on, but it’s off stage, purely incidental to the vertiginous spirals of vicious, tender, jealous, angry passion that lacerate the three women at the film’s centre.

The Favourite is replete with the signature stylistic quirks that brought Lanthimos to prominence with English-speaking audiences (he’s Greek) with The Lobster in 2015, also with an all-star cast and Rachel Weisz in the lead: affectless sex scenes (here, a particularly horrible hand job) whose function I suppose is to (rather obviously) satirise the common notion of sex as loving completion in another – almost all sex scenes in Hollywood films are portrayed with a gloss of mutual sensitivity and ecstatic union; petty acts of self-harm (Stone’s Abigail hits herself repeatedly with a book); and a nauseatingly repetitive soundtrack.

“Absolutely hated it” was my editor Iain Martin’s take on our podcast, citing these quirks in particular. I’m inclined to agree that they add very little to the brilliant central features of the film, beyond burnishing Lanthimos’s cheap faux radicalism and his questionable art house credentials.

It is some tribute to this film (and indeed Lanthimos) that it really does work in spite of the supreme irritation of its stylistic obsessions.