“Period films have touched on same-sex romance, but the way The Favourite centers a lesbian love triangle feels utterly new.”
Title: The Favourite (2018)
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos 👨🏼🇬🇷
Writers: Deborah Davis 👩🏼🇬🇧 and Tony McNamara 👨🏼🇦🇺
Reviewed by Mimi 👩🏻🇺🇸
Under the guise of “retelling” history, the British period drama often sacrifices a critical eye in favor of sweeping romance, political scandal, sumptuous costumes, and over-the-top sets. Biopics about Great Britain’s royals are especially prone to rosy-colored revisions. Consider Netflix’s The Crown about the currently reigning Queen Elizabeth II or the multiple movies and television series about Queen Victoria as recent examples of how these narratives glorify British imperialism by reaffirming the virtue of its monarch.
In The Favourite, director Yorgos Lanthimos does away with any semblance of pomp or propriety in his interpretation of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), a ruler who seems to have very little interest in ruling. Prone to tantrums and easily manipulated, she possesses a child-like temperament. Meanwhile, her court of sycophants and hangers-on jockey for access and power. Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the queen’s closest confidante, friend, and sometimes bedmate, excels as the puppet master who knows how to pull all the right strings. She frequently demonstrates a lack of reverence for her royal highness by ordering her around, deploying profanity, and even pointing out that the queen’s poorly done makeup has her resembling a badger. Equally ambitious and hardheaded, Sarah’s poorer relation Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at the palace desperate to climb back up the social ladder from which she’s fallen. Conflict arises when Abigail begins to usurp Sarah’s standing as Anne’s favorite.
Dryly delivered lines, delightfully absurd moments, and a highly stylized aesthetic with modern-day touches blatantly thrown in all help to propel the film forward. The second half does drag slightly with perhaps one too many chapters. For the most part, however, Lanthimos succeeds in transforming the staid period drama into something sharp and fresh.
A wealth of historical sources, including passionate notes between Anne and Sarah, or Sarah’s own memoir recounting how she was replaced by Abigail as the queen’s favorite, served as the inspiration for a script that cleverly layers politics and sex onto a triangulated relationship. Though the physical aspect of the “romantically charged” friendships between Anne and Sarah, and later Anne and Abigail, remain unproven and unknowable, the film is less interested in historical accuracy than it is in exploring the agency of the three women involved.
Their wants and desires are placed squarely at the center of the narrative: Abigail longs to resume her rightful place in upper-crust society. Sarah enjoys the degree of control she holds over the queen and, in governing by proxy, being able to advance her political agenda. And Anne, the most emotionally vulnerable, simply seeks love and affection, though she’ll settle for attention and coddling. The balance of power constantly fluxes, and it’s never absolutely clear who is manipulating whom. Though the stakes may appear deceptively petty and trifling, the characters’ actions directly influence matters of import, from war to spending to taxation.
At the same time, the film acknowledges the limitations of living in a patriarchal society. Out of the three women, Abigail has perhaps suffered the most. Previously traded like chattel by her father to pay off a gambling debt, she represents a fallen woman who uses marriage as way to reclaim her status. Anne, too, can be seen as a “failed” woman for failing to produce a surviving heir. (The film tells us that she lost 17 children to either miscarriage or early death.) Later, when Sarah has been left with a badass scar across her cheek, which Anne recoils form, she laments how it would not be an issue for a man.
Men—such as Lady Sarah’s husband Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), a military general, and Harley (Nicholas Hoult), a politician—flitter on the perimeter. In many ways, they need their female counterparts more than the other way around, whether it’s for access to the queen or sexual gratification. The film also plays with gender reversal when it comes to the how masculinity and femininity are presented. The men in court teeter around in heeled shoes, with their faces caked with powder and rouge, and their wigs growing outrageously large. Abigail, Sarah, and Anne (except for the aforementioned badger look), on the other hand, often sport more bare or natural-looking faces. They wear dark, neutral gowns in black and white—and sometimes even trousers. Sarah’s hunting and riding outfits provide stunning examples of masculine-feminine dressing.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 0% of key cast and crew members were POC.
There’s not much to say except that the only characters of color are listed as Pigeon Boy and Courtier (uncredited). While it’s not unexpected that a period film about 18th-century England would be almost entirely white, we know from history that free Black men and women arrived there between the 16th and 19th century as a consequence of the slave trade. A multiracial London is beautifully illustrated in the era-adjacent show Harlots, while Amma Asante’s Belle remains one of the only period pieces to feature an aristocratic Black woman. For a film that took not only liberties but apparent pleasure in subverting expectations of gender and sexuality, it would have been a nice bonus to see the same attitude afforded to representations of race.
Bonus for LGBTQ: +1.00
Period films, such as The Duchess and Farewell, My Queen, previously have highlighted same-sex encounters. Yet, a story that explicitly centers a lesbian love triangle feels utterly new. And the depiction is far from simplistic. The dynamic between the three women is complicated by friendship, love, lust, politics, and plenty of psychological mind games. These women, and their relationships to one another, are multi-dimensional and full of surprises.
Bonus for Disability: +0.00
Hobbled by gout, Anne requires a wheelchair or assistance to walk. We see Sarah and Abigail take turns in the role of her caretaker. An unflinching look at how mental and physical illness can intersect, the portrayal of the queen’s afflictions does border on the grotesque.
Mediaversity Grade: B 4.00/5
In turning the treatment of gender and sexuality on its head, The Favourite upends almost all the conventions of a Serious Period Drama. As a result, it forces us to consider the lens through which history has been written and by whom. If filmmakers insist on incessantly revisiting past histories (which I’m not necessarily complaining about because I love a good period drama), then this movie offers a way forward that concedes that history has always been open to interpretation and reinterpretation. So why not have some fun while we’re at it?