Finally. What a year this has been for women in the cinema, in movies bad and good, we’ve engaged with Women as women, not appendages. They were strong. In charge. Un-beholden to the men, wherever they were (lost somewhere flexing faux superhero muscles). Powerful. Clever. Sexy. The list goes on. They weren’t the supporting cast, the doting eye candy. These were movies, often written by women, and directed by them, about fundamental issues of power, identity, Independence etc with women at the centre.
And they made money.
Here’s a list of movie feminism circa 2018: Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside…), Saoirse Ronan (as Ladybird and Mary Queen of Scots), Margot Robbie (I, Tonya and Mary, Queen of Scots), Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Annihilation), Gabrielle Union (Breaking In), Sandra Bullock (Oceans Eight, Bird Box), Julia Roberts (Homecoming), Sacha Parkinson (Apostasy), Emma Thompson (The Children Act), Glenn Close (The Wife), Viola Davis (Widows), Carey Mulligan (Wildlife), Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz (Disobedience), Rachel Weisz, again, with Emma Stone and Olivia Coleman (The Favourite), Keira Knightly (Collette), Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins), Yalitza Aparazio (Roma). Even Captain Marvel’s gender has be reassigned.
But I digress.
The Favourite is a delicious, wildly entertaining, hugely satisfying Court romp about power, politics and (devious) ways of persuasion. The story centres on the toxic ménage a trois of Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman), who ruled Britain between 1702 – 1714, her confidant, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) – yes, that Churchill- wife of Lord Marlborough, the Queen’s Captain-General and Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), a disgraced ingenue from the country, with an eye for advancement.
It’s a tale of sex, seduction, cross-dressing, deceit and intrigue.
And it all begins when Abigail is unceremoniously dumped in the mud outside the Queen’s palace. She has come in the hope that cousin Sarah can find her a place in the palace. This cousin Sarah reluctantly does. She’s given the post of scullery maid, beholden to an abusive kitchen hand, one notch above her in the pecking order. Abigail becomes, albeit briefly, the defenceless victim to the exercise of -abusive- power at its most basic.
She’s an attractive young thing, and pretty soon catches the eye of one of the lords of the court. When he barges into her chamber one night, she questions whether he’s there to seduce her or rape her. He answers that he’s a gentleman. So, it’s rape then, she replies.
Thus does director lay out the idea that drives his story: the symbiotic knit of sex and power…the power of position and status to demand sex and the power of sex to achieve position and -favoured- status. At one point in the story, we find ourselves in a bordello. It’s a brilliant, if not too subtle expression of the transactional nature of sex. Open your legs and here’s your reward : a job, an army, a sinecure, a better room, a palace, a position of authority forever.
In other words, the present British aristocracy
At the head of the pecking order is of course the Queen, who, when we meet her, is a depressed, infantilised, petulant woman whose seventeen pregnancies have all failed to bear fruit. She keeps rabbits, one for each departed child. And she is entirely dependent for any emotional succour on Sarah, her counsel, puppet master and lover. Sarah is the cunning conduit between the Prime Minister and the Queen.
England is in a state of war; life and death decisions of the most far-reaching consequence are made through the whispers in dark corridors and silk bed sheets.
Abigail’s arrival quickly upsets this status quo. Her farmer’s know-how about herbs and natural poultices soon endears her to the gout ridden queen (Oh England, thou art sick). And having conveniently fallen asleep on the Royal bed, her lithe naked body quickly endears her to the Queen even more. And thus begins the duel for power between the dark, older Sarah and the fair, younger Abigail. Each is aligned with opposing political power bases: Tory v Whig; hawk v dove. One moment you’re in favour; the next you’re not.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ directing, along with his wonderful production and Costume designers, Fiona Crombie and Sandie Powell, present us with an absurdist, vulgar, grotesque world. It is as grotesque as the idea of divine, God given, Royal power. It is a world of effete men in their effeminate wigs and powdered, pomaded faces and crack shot women dressed like buccaneers.
The actions unfold on two stages: an indoor stage of dark tapestries and hidden corridors that barely obscure the serial seductions and stealth within; and an outdoors world of violence…birds are slaughtered, a woman is thrown from her horse and pulled for miles, another is chased like prey by her hunter lover.
Indoors or out, you’re either the hunter with power of the hunted without. In this world, there are only winners and losers.
The three principals in this fine romp are outstanding. Olivia Coleman probably had the hardest job: her richly complex character – self indulgent, self pitying, clueless, abusive – still manages to win the audience’s favouritism when we finally realise what she must clearly have know all along, and which we see in her eyes in the closing shot: that she’s being played. Rachel Weisz’ Lady Sarah is steely and cunning, but with an honesty and genuine love for her Queen that is at times almost touching. Not so Emma Stone’s Abigail. We feel for her as she’s knocked about by men and punished by Lady Sarah. We’re seduced by her fearlessness and spunk (and impeccable English accent). And in the end we’re disgusted by her heartlessness. Stone’s brilliance is that she always allows us behind the mask to the nastiness within.
This is of course an “historical drama”. But as if to ensure that viewers don’t relegate it to ‘an event that took place in the past’, the semiotics of the film – the racy dialogue, the (break) dancing, the exaggerated foppiness of the clothes, and even the focus of the story (where the men are largely bystanders) – demand that we view the morale of this tale through the lens of our present winter of discontent.
It’s almost as though Yorgos Lanthimos is suggesting that three hundred years after her death, the nobility who rule are vainglorious fops, and the policies of their government are still shaped by favouritism, cunning whispers, and self seeking power brokers.
THE FAVOURITE. Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster), Writers: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara. With: Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone. Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult. Cinematographer: Robbie Ryan (I, Daniel Blake). Production Designer: Fiona Crombie (Macbeth). Costume Designer: Sandy Powell (Cindarella)