“I’m on my side. Always.”
It isn’t news that politics can be a cutthroat sport. But in the hands of Yorgos Lanthimos, all that palace intrigue can become the basis of humor. The Favourite is a Machiavellian comedy set 400 years ago that reflects the way power often happens in secret, but with important consequences.
Set in the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) the story takes place almost entirely within the royal household. Anne is frail, crippled by gout, and retiring. She lacks the confidence and, it seems, the intelligence to handle matters of state. Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) is Anne’s longtime friend, confidant, lover, and controller. Even though Anne holds the power, Sarah knows how to manipulate her. Sarah is the éminence grise who, while working with the Whigs in the Parliament, actually runs the country.
When Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) shows up at the palace looking for a position, Sarah is not all that impressed. Abigail was born a part of the aristocracy, but her family’s bankruptcy took away the life she had expected. Sarah sends her to the kitchen to work as a scullery maid. But when Abigail makes an herbal remedy that helps the Queen’s gout, Sarah appoints her to be her own maid, perhaps grooming her to assist her in her political mechanizations. But Abigail sees it as a chance to make her own way. The Tory leader sees in Abigail a backchannel to the Queen. When Abigail discovers how Sarah is running things, and the power she has over Anne, Abigail begins to undermine her cousin and put herself forward. Eventually, their rivalry will take on much larger significance as each pushes the agenda of their political allies.
This is a dark comedy, with a good deal of scatological and bedroom humor. There is also a satirical quality to it as it looks at the political system as buffoonery. The Queen is unintelligent. The leader of the Whigs carries his prized racing duck around with him. The leader of the Tories is a consummate dandy. None of those tabularly in power is in any way worthy of respect. Or course, we could look at our own political system and wonder if anything has changed.
The story is based on historical people, however the events are fictional. Even so, it shows how important matters, even war and peace, may be determined not so much by reason as by personalities and how they manipulate situations. And because it is nearly all dealing with the aristocracy, we also understand that those who really pay the price for all this are people with no voice.
It makes for an interesting twist that the world of politics in this story is based on these three women. The men in the story really have no control; they are used by the women to further their own goals. Each of the women is seeking something for herself. The Queen is looking for love. Sarah desires power. Abigail begins by seeking status and prestige, but soon that is not enough, she wants autonomy and freedom to do as she wants. It is a matter of everyone wanting their own good, even if it is at the expense of others.
Photos courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox