According to Hegel, every major historical event repeats itself twice; according to Marx’s notorious addendum, the first time is a tragedy, the second a farce. Most things happen twice in The Favourite, but director Yorgos Lanthimos reverses the rhythm so farce gives way to tragedy, or else layers the two over each other until we cannot tell the difference. Lanthimos’ films have always drawn ruthless humor out of an absurd cosmos by trapping helpless individuals in ludicrous systems and situations – in The Lobster, singles are turned into animals if they cannot find a mate, and in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a surgeon must sacrifice a family member to atone for a patient’s death on his operating table – but although The Favourite superficially resembles his previous work, with its distorted vision of the world and gleeful alternations between stilted formality and wild profanity, Lanthimos’ clinically off-kilter style has been diluted into something more conventional, less terrifyingly alien. (It is, not coincidentally, his first time directing a script he did not write.) Slow-motion duck races and anachronistic dance moves notwithstanding, The Favourite’s baroque setting and tumult of erotic and political conspiracies seem downright mundane compared to the intricate dystopias of Dogtooth and The Lobster.
Nevertheless, the same underlying tension is at play. Lanthimos is concerned with man as a political animal, forever torn between the city of man and the state of nature, harried by both the demands of society and the imperatives of the flesh. Of course, the two are frequently at odds. As one character puts it, “A man’s dignity is all that holds him back from running amok,” but dignity is a rare commodity in Lanthimos’ universe, where man runs roughshod over man. Civilization does little to hold this tendency in check; it merely diverts it into ever more convoluted channels. “My life is like a maze I continually think I’ve gotten out of,” muses Abigail (Emma Stone), and indeed, society in The Favourite is an elaborate labyrinth of codes and manners through which characters blunder like minotaurs: half-man and half-beast.
The plot revolves around three women in the royal court of eighteenth-century England. At the center is Queen Anne (Olivia Colman); around her orbit loyal confidant Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and scheming maid Abigail, who become locked in an escalating contest for Anne’s affections and the advantages that accompany them. The film’s eccentric direction, ornate mise-en-scène, and colorful, rapid-fire script are all worthy of praise, but its greatest asset is its triumvirate of lead actresses. Weisz is remarkably compelling, all steely reserve, deadpan wit, and hidden wells of feeling. Stone is impressive like never before, carefully modulating her usual persona of bubbly earnestness to suggest an underlying hollowness. Finally, Colman is magnificent as the childish monarch, investing this stunted soul with enough humanity to be a subject of pity, not a caricature, even as she waddles aimlessly around her chambers, gulps down whole slices of cake, and lies on the ground wailing like a vexed infant.
Sarah is securely positioned as the Queen’s favorite when the film opens, essentially running the country for her and receiving extravagant gifts for her efforts, much to the displeasure of Harley (a hilarious Nicholas Hoult), leader of the opposing party. Harley represents the common people, from whom Sarah, as a representative of the affluent aristocracy, keeps the monarch insulated. Yet this tenuous state of affairs cannot last; Harley warns of popular outrage outside the castle walls. Abigail, Sarah’s cousin and a former lady, arrives at court under inauspicious circumstances, penniless and covered in mud and feces, but after she is installed as a maid, she promptly gets into Sarah’s good graces, curries favor with the Queen, and forms an alliance with Harley. After slipping through the cracks of the edifice Sarah has so carefully constructed, Abigail proceeds to erode its foundation, attempting to usurp her place as the Queen’s favorite and completely upending the political and relational scheme of the court and the nation it represents in the process.
The antagonism between Sarah and Abigail has both personal and factional implications. Though the scheming and jockeying within Anne’s court takes center stage in the film, a military conflict between England and France is playing out in the background. Harley wants to sue for peace, but Sarah pushes for the war to continue as a show of strength. According to Harley, Sarah’s class benefits financially from the war while his peasants pay the price in blood and taxes. However, she warns him not to lecture her about the cost, for her husband fights on the front lines, and, as she confides to Anne, she is tormented by dreams of his death in battle. Sarah believes sacrifice and ruthlessness are necessary, and she tells Abigail that there is “always a price.” Abigail embodies a different impulse, however, desiring “safety and security above all else,” and she falls in line with Harley, who also prefers ease over difficulty, leveraging the immediate, material needs of the populace to oppose Sarah, who is more concerned with long-term stability. Sarah is drawn to order, rigidity; “I do fear confusion and accidents,” she says. The downtrodden Abigail, in contrast, has a more anarchic spirit, sneering at the aristocrats’ pretensions of dignity. While her cynicism is not without grounds, she replaces the façade she sees through with nothing better, ultimately indulging in the same excess and debauchery when given the opportunity. Abigail is able to manipulate others, but lacks the ability to control herself; “I must take control of my circumstance,” she says, but her only goal is to secure her own comfort. Sarah and Abigail both pursue their inclinations to ugly extremes, but we sense that Sarah’s love of England, uncharitable and self-interested though it may be, is preferable to the banal self-interest of Abigail, who declares simply, “I’m on my side. Always.”
When informed that Sarah is preoccupied with matters of state, the Queen cries, “It’s my state! I’m the business of state!” In The Favourite, the government of a country reflects an individual’s government of self. A nation is its monarch; Queen Anne is England. The political rhymes with the personal; the power struggle between Anne, Sarah, and Abigail is also a love triangle.
Just as Sarah keeps a tight rein on the Queen’s political decisions by insulating her from Harley and the populace, she tamps down her feelings with a strictness that verges on cruelty. “You look like a badger,” she says bluntly of the Queen’s mascara; when the monarch pouts over the assessment, Sarah demands scornfully, “Are you going to cry?” Elsewhere, she shames Anne for acting like a child and derides her affection for her pet rabbits. However, while Sarah’s motives for sequestering the Queen are undoubtedly colored by self-interest, it gradually becomes clear that on some level, her care for Anne is genuine, intended to curb tendencies that would lead to her destruction, to keep her appetites in check for her own good. Yet Sarah’s unkindness and lack of open affection furnish Abigail with her opportunity to capture the Queen’s heart. Though Sarah tends to be unsympathetic toward the Queen’s distress, Abigail and the Queen are connected by their suffering; Abigail’s first move is to soothe the Queen’s gout with the same herb that she uses to salve her own lye-burned hand. The Queen accuses Sarah of being “unsentimental,” but perceives Abigail as “a darling person.” While Sarah is brusquely forthright about her demands, Abigail never openly requests favors from the Queen, instead cunningly orchestrating events to get what she wants. Sarah forbids Anne from drinking hot chocolate because it will upset her stomach; Abigail takes her to a mud bath and tells her to pretend she is swimming in hot chocolate. Sarah shows little concern for the Queen’s happiness; outwardly, Abigail only cares for her happiness, while only truly wanting her own.
It is unclear whether Abigail becomes more selfish as the film goes on, or whether her façade of sweetness and altruism is a sham from the beginning, slipping away when it is no longer useful. A single tear shed in private suggests some sincere regrets, but she indulges in wanton cruelty after she is victorious and does not need to win any more favors by affecting a sweet disposition. When she has secured her rival’s expulsion from the palace, Abigail thinks she has won, but Sarah retorts, “We were playing very different games.” Sarah’s claims to moral high ground are more than a little suspect, as she was also using the Queen for her own ends, but by the film’s conclusion, it is clear enough that her love was at least more genuine than Abigail’s, and in a Lanthimos film, the choice is always between the lesser of two evils.
Indeed, Lanthimos’ cosmos is so thoroughly brutal that love requires a measure of self-inflicted delusion to thrive; hence, it is associated with blindness. (This was also the case, quite pointedly, in The Lobster.) In The Favourite’s first scene, the Queen blindfolds Sarah to surprise her with a display of love, an extravagant gift. In turn, Anne is blind to the proceedings at court because of her love for Sarah, who prevents her from meeting an ambassador by mocking her badger-like makeup, which she examines in a tiny mirror Sarah provides. When one of Sarah’s cheeks is scarred, the Queen does not like it; Sarah covers half her face (including one eye) to appease her. While she is thus half-blinded by love, she burns her only bargaining chip and seals her own fate. Love, in the world of The Favourite, is a strategic error; the loveless Abigail prevails because she is clear-eyed, forever taking everything in, watching for an advantage. (Lanthimos uses Stone’s large eyes to great effect.) “I dreamt I stabbed you in the eye… Oh, my God, I miss you,” the spurned Sarah writes in a love letter, but whatever else she writes in her search for reconciliation is lost. The letter is burnt by Abigail before it can reach the Queen.
The film opens with the Queen asking Sarah to say hello to her “little ones” – her seventeen pet rabbits, which represent the seventeen children she has lost. Sarah refuses on the grounds that it is “morbid.” “Love has limits,” she objects. “It should not,” replies the Queen. The limits of Sarah’s love are set by her dignity – “I am not food,” she chides, “You cannot just eat and eat” – but Abigail has no dignity, so the Queen forsakes a favorite who cares about her for a favorite who will do whatever she wants. In the process, she trades a difficult love for no love at all. Abigail pretends to be fond of the rabbits, but when the Queen’s back is turned, she tramples on them. The Favourite is full of these vicious reversals. Sarah tried to keep Abigail out and is herself expelled from the Queen’s presence, but this is not enough. The Queen is England, so Sarah must be banished, and with this ultimate rejection, she finally tires of the country she so ardently professed to love; after the Queen cuts Sarah out and strips her party of its power in Parliament, half of her body shuts down, ridden by gout. The monarch is the nation. The farce and the tragedy are one. There is no love between the Queen and Abigail, only a mutual devouring, and the two fade into each other as the Queen’s rabbits fill the screen, culprit and victim conflated and lost in a whirlpool that goes down and down to the dead.