Co-president of Fox Searchlight pictures David Greenbaum ’98 Skyped in before the film The Favourite last Thursday at Cornell Cinema and provided context and commentary about the film. Greenbaum described The Favourite as a “punk rock period piece,” and I couldn’t agree more. The film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is one of the most realistic depictions of historic artistry while still being bitingly funny.
The movie centers on the maneuverings of English court during the end of Queen Anne’s (Olivia Coleman) reign, largely focusing on Anne’s relationship with Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and Lady Abigail Mashman (Emma Stone). The fact that Queen Anne’s battle with gout is shown in an unflinching way makes Coleman’s portrayal unlike so many others. Coleman also leans into the petulant attitude of the monarch, showcasing the consequences for the entire country and the world at large when Queen Anne flips back and forth from approval and spite.
The other two female leads in the movie, Lady Sarah and Lady Abigail, provide foils for one another as they compete for the role of the Queen’s lover. Weisz’s Lady Sarah has long been the companion, close advisor and secret lover to the Queen since childhood. However, when Stone’s Lady Abigail arrives downtrodden and looking for a role in her distant cousin’s service, she attempts to replace Sarah as Queen Anne’s favorite.
Lanthimos’ film is unique and, at times, abrasive. Whether in its depiction of the sores and cuts that the Queen has covering her legs due to extreme gout, or the blood spatters of birds after they are shot, Lanthimos’ shots are purposeful to convey the complexity of the royal court: filth and pain with love and excess.
When Greenbaum is selecting films to produce, he aims to champion “auteur” filmmakers that have a clear authoritarian tone in their directing like Lanthimos with The Favourite or Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. The cinematography in The Favourite also creates complex layers in the narrative since it uses mainly natural light and employs a fisheye lens at key parts in the film. According to Greenbaum, the fisheye lens “is a subtle nod to the fishbowl of the monarch with its isolated people that have a large effect on the outside world.”
Unique camera work adds to the sense of a punk period piece since the aesthetics of punk emphasize a subversion of established norms, and The Favourite shrugs having its characters be reduced to one characteristic. Characters dominated by a single trait are common in many movies about monarchy and, in a larger sense, for a portion of female roles in film. Anne, Sarah and Abigail cannot be deemed heroes or villains; instead, the film highlights the duality of its characters. Wilde’s quote that “the truth is rarely pure and never simple” is a good epithet for the film that melds manipulated social climbing with women trying to secure a place for themselves in a male-dominated world. The female character’s needs and wants (both socially and sexually) are shown with a frankness that most period pieces refuse to show.
While attempting to work within a system that values male voices, all three characters find success and personal failure within the palace walls. Coleman’s Anne has an obsession with 17 bunnies in her room that represent the 17 children she lost in childbirth or that perished not long after they were born. When Abigail’s father gambled her away, she was stripped of her Ladyship and forced to work in the mud and scrub the floors. Finally, Sarah has to contend with her younger cousin as she attempts to replace her as the Queen’s favourite. The duality of the trio is accompanied by a score that reflects the frenzied pace of a real-life chess game.
One of the other stands out aspects of the film are the costumes. Excess and regality are present in the gowns for the Queen and the people at court, but the clothes they wear reflect their personalities. In Sarah’s case, the more traditionally masculine breeches and coat act as armor and showcase her understanding of power and position within the court. Biting humor comes not only from the fixed camera shots on uncomfortable scenes but also from the lines of dialogue that veer on flippancy. The dialogue somehow retains a sense of sincerity, as they are not laden with purple prose; instead, the focus on short lines with emphatic delivery furthers the frenzied pace of the social climbing and betrayal. This film was one of the best period pieces I have seen, and while it works within the framework of the genre, it subverts some of the genre’s more dated conceptions, such as heteronormativity and submissiveness in favor of multi-faceted female characters with extreme agency and freedom.
Ashley Davila is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.