Some movies feel like entering into someone’s mind and being let in on (subjected to?) the internal conflicts waging there. The Favourite is that kind of movie. The latest from Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster), The Favourite is a sugared plum of a movie – irresistible in its cinematography and acting, cloying in its Oscar-begging costume and set design and period vernacular, and nauseating in its final effect, turning your stomach as you contemplate what it suggests about the nature of people injured by abuse and haunted by loss and desperate to find some security in life.
The story is based in historical fact. The affections of Queen Anne, the final surviving monarch of the House of Stuart—under whom England and Scotland were united into Great Britain—are fought over by two women who are close to her, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and Sarah’s cousin, Abigail Marsham, during the War of Spanish Succession. The key events of that rivalry which led to the disintegration of Sarah’s relationship with Anne are included in this film, with some speculative license taken for good, dramatic measure. A quick perusal of the Wikipedia article about Sarah’s life wouldn’t hurt your experience of The Favourite, though it’s not entirely necessary either.
The film is so focused, so well-delivered, and so well-acted, you can enter it on the purely symbolic level. Let Sarah and Abigail’s rivalry over Anne become the warring of super-ego and id over the ego. See in them your own internal struggle between the virtues you want to believe order the world and your life, the desperate fear that screams otherwise, and the negotiating remove that can’t decide which voice is more advantageous to listen to at any moment. The Favourite’s depiction of power both on the throne and behind it is not flattering, but it is familiar. Is it a simple historical tale? A metaphor for the individual’s struggle for self-governance? A satirical take on contemporary politics? A more cosmic exploration of the dynamics which govern all life? Make of it what you want. By delving so deeply into the relationship between these three women, The Favourite crosses the line from specificity to the universal like an electron microscope tapping into the fundamental nature of reality by peering the makeup of a pea.
Key to this effect is Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s use of extreme wide-angle lenses which serve to both place the expanse of these palatial estates on the screen while also showing their limits. Wide angle lenses of anything other than landscape shots tend to distort around the edges creating an illusion of curvature in the medium distance. This is especially true when a wide angle shot includes movement, as it usually does in The Favourite. So the characters in this film are kept in the center of the frame as the world warps around them—a commentary on the ways our personal failings mar our societies? perhaps—but it also makes the film both eye-opening and claustrophobic all at once. Again, it’s like entering into someone’s mind – the possibilities feel endless yet bounded by a single perspective all at once.
Lanthimos’ comedies are decidedly black, but that doesn’t mean they are completely without compassion. The Favourite is careful to root the characters’ despicable choices in past abuse, lingering pain, and loss. This doesn’t excuse their actions, but it does drape a veil of sadness over the whole affair. The Favourite makes you long for a better panacea even as it posits none, other than letting go of rational sense even if it’s only for a moment. Still the pain lingers though we go temporarily numb. It’s a salve, not a solution. Mercy, yes, thank God, but not restoration. There is no source for that in The Favourite’s draperied halls. Maybe love? But even that faces seemingly insurmountable odds.