I didn’t know anything much about early C.18 English history before I went to see The Favourite, even less about its director, Yorgos Lanthimos, and nothing at all about the film. I’ve since read up a little on some of those topics; not extensively, but enough to have a vague idea what the hell it was I just saw…
The Favourite is a work of fiction based on historical figures and events, which makes no effort to cleave to the contents of the archive. It is in some ways faithful to what we might imagine we know about Restoration society, but in many cases it dispenses flamboyantly with historical ‘accuracy’, as in the hilarious dance scene. It is marketed as a comedy, and comic incident is indeed at the heart of its construction, but I think it would be fairer to say that it foregrounds humour; it is in every way a serious drama, a committed investigation of human relationships, of power politics, and of the tenor of life in tenuous social circumstances.
It is also a very clever and self-aware piece of film-making, carefully negotiating a narrow strait between immersion in its milieu and cheeky perforations of its fourth wall. It is abetted in this negotiation by the extraordinarily compelling performances of its three principals, in whose mouths the frequent oscillations between formally historical and colloquially contemporary language are as smooth as buttermilk. Although Olivia Colman is getting most of the plaudits for her Queen Anne (I am writing in award season), Rachel Weisz’s Duchess of Marlborough was a real show stealer, and in all fairness it is hard to put a Rizla paper between the quality of those performances and that of Emma Stone’s Abigail Hill.
The precise details of the interactions between these three women are basically made up by Deborah Davis, who deserves a mention for the excellence of her screenplay. Although Sarah Churchill (the Duchess of Marlborough) was indeed succeeded by Abigail Hill as Queen Anne’s favourite, and Hill had indeed been Churchill’s servant, these historical dispositions are no more than a jumping off point for the making of an engaging and provocative story. The central thrust seems to be about power, and about the damage that standing near to it can do to human relationships. The precarity of life in the Royal court, for both servant and duchess, is shown to produce inevitable patterns of behaviour in which all other people and all relationships can only ever be instrumental. And for the individual at the centre, in whose person power is embodied… well, no spoilers, but let’s just say she’s not entirely happy.
It shouldn’t be remarkable, but it is well worth remarking that all three main characters, through whom the entire narrative is focalised, are women. What’s more, they are granted the kind of agency that is frequently reserved for male characters, even when women are placed at the centre of the action; and more than that, there is no token male para-protagonist to keep the male viewer interested. All of the men are minor characters, placed at the disposal of the narrative, providing scaffolding to the central fabula, and treated within the story as disposable instruments of the women’s ambitions. It’s about time.