The Favourite marks Yorgos Lanthimos’ first foray into period drama, but in his hands the events of Queen Anne’s brief reign feel every bit as otherworldly and bizarre as the alternate future glimpsed in The Lobster, or the awry version of the present offered by The Killing of a Sacred Deer. In its broad outlines, the film follows historical fact, since we do know that Anne’s (Olivia Colman) closest confidant, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) was at some point supplanted by Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a maid who managed to insinuate herself into the Queen’s heart and mind. Beyond those broad strokes, though, and the possibility that Anne was involved in a lesbian relationship with one or both of these women, not much is known – and Lanthimos situates his film in that ellipsis, building an evocative and provocative romantic drama that sees Sarah and Abigail competing in ever more flamboyant ways for Anne’s attention. At the same time, Anne grows ever more confounding, unpredictable and abject in her demands, forcing Sarah and Abigail to pivot ever more deftly in order to stay ahead of each other and retain power.
In many ways, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script, which was first conceived in 1998, feels modelled on the kinds of period drama that Peter Greenaway pioneered in the late 80s and early 90s. As in Greenaway’s films, the presumed stateliness of period drama is presented as the ideal canvas to celebrate an unruliness and unkemptness to the human body that has largely vanished from the modern era, as much as our inhibitions around bodily functions might seem to have waned. The film abounds with esoteric and arcane ceremonies, often shot in slow motion, while things are emphasized as things, and bodies as bodies, with a materiality and plasticity that offsets any sustained sense of regality or courtliness. Time and again, the characters have to dodge, duck and weave away from objects that are propelled at them (birch, bullets, books, bottles), although they just as often find themselves hit, splattered or sprayed in some way, whether with mud, blood or liquor, while sometimes finding it necessary to assault themselves in this manner as well, as when Abigail slams herself in the forehead with a book in order to turn Anne against Sarah.
As in Greenaway’s films, too, this grotesque corporeality tends to be most pronounced around food. From a scene in which Anne alternates between eating cake and throwing it up (she had a digestive condition that made her react violently to sugar) to a food fight in which the Duke of Marlborough is stripped naked and pelted with rotten fruit, the passage of food through the body, and across the body, makes it impossible for the film to differentiate or compartmentalize bodily functions from one another. Rather than function as the pinnacle of ceremony, ritual and stateliness – as it does in so many period dramas – the process of eating here tends to collapse the body into a series of unruly and promiscuous impulses that can’t and won’t be contained, even or especially when it is most critical to contain them. Nowhere is that clearer than in the body of Anne herself, who doesn’t deteriorate so much as elasticize over the course of the film, shedding one inhibition after another, until her body refuses to conform to the demands placed on it in any one situation, exuding impulses, appetites and demands that never seem to know their place, or be invested in knowing their place, with respect to what is occurring around them.
Not only does that make for the most astonishingly embodied performance of Olivia Colman’s career, but it creates an environment within which desires that might typically be considered taboo within a period drama – both by the period itself but also, more importantly, by consumers of period drama in the present – can flourish and proliferate. While Anne’s sexual conquests of Sarah and Abigail are as scabrous as the rest of the film, the field of desire is too undifferentiated across The Favourite for these relations to feel as if they are consciously subverting a norm, or operating according to a more contemporary closet epistemology. In another kind of period drama, queerness might be framed as an awry relation to the period in question – a look, a glance, a hidden embrace – but Lanthimos’ world is already so awry to begin with that the queerness never really ramifies in this way. With characters continually being struck, hit, tripped, pushed and thrown off-balance, Abigail and Sarah seem to end up in Anne’s bed as a logical consequence of an off-kilter world, rather than as some kind of putative escape from or resistance to their world.
It’s that lack of resistance that makes The Favourite so compelling from a contemporary perspective, wherein every act of historical queerness tends to be framed as part of a lineage of resistance that culminated with the liberated present. While Anne, Abigail and Sarah might resist the world around them in a variety of ways – they’re united only by their stubbornness – their resistance and their desire never quite overlap, or converge on the same object. No doubt, their desire is a kind of resistance, and their resistance depends partly on their desire, but their desire is never delibidinised as a mere category of resistance. Instead, Lanthimos evokes a world in which female desire, and female-female desire, is never quite naturalized, but never quite conceived as a point of resistance either, instead simply existing as one form of desire amongst others, albeit the form of desire that the film is most interested in exploring. In order to relativise desire in that way, and to remove male desire as a stabilizing point of either consensus or resistance, Lanthimos evokes a vast continuum of desire that collapses humans, animals, plants, fungi and even inanimate objects into a sentient, undifferentiated whole. Not only does Abigail first bond with Anne over a fungal poultice, but she cements their rapport through a lobster race and, finally, by embracing the seventeen guinea pigs that the Queen keeps caged in her chamber, each of which represents one of the seventeen children that she lost much earlier in her life.
Rather than represent the Queen as the site through which the desires of the nation are mediated, The Favourite thus represents the Queen as a site of undifferentiated desire. Put more bluntly, the Queen here represents the site at which the Queen fails to function, turning Lanthimos’ film into something of a response of The Crown, especially since Colman will also be playing Elizabeth in the next two seasons of Peter Morgan’s series. Whereas Claire Foy’s version of Elizabeth tries to be responsive to the pressures placed upon her body by the mass media of the twentieth century – to conceive of herself as the ultimate mass medium – Colman’s version of Anne fails from the very outset. Pretending to faint in order to avoid political discussion, changing policy in fits of jealous and rage, and shunning all but the most necessary of diplomatic encounters, her multiple physical ailments all plays as so many efforts by her body to pre-emptive reject the mediating role that has been placed upon her, the role that would culminate in Elizabeth’s own agonised relation with mass media two centuries later. One of the key lessons that Elizabeth learns in The Crown is that, in order to mediate the bodies and minds of the nation, she is not permitted to have a body and mind of her own. Throughout The Favourite, Anne seems to glimpse this distant endgame of the monarchy, just as Colman often seems to be glimpsing her next role as Elizabeth, and both actor and character respond by emphasising the corporeality of their bodies, and the sheer inflexible fact of Anne’s will, as viscerally and explosively as possible.
To a certain extent, Lanthimos responds to that screenplay, and that depiction of Anne, by drawing upon the visual vocabulary of Greenaway’s period films, especially in his use of expansive vistas, sharp bursts of neoclassical music, and scenes in which stateliness and abjection go hand in hand. Yet the grid that underpins Greenaway’s films is largely absent here, replaced instead by a tendency towards shots that are so wide that they require a fisheye lens to properly capture them. At one point, Sarah observes to Abigail that her shooting is “really doing damage to the sky,” and it often feels as if Lanthimos is aiming for the same effect with his compositions, which strain so hard to capture the enormity of rooms, corridors and gardens in single images that they curve in on themselves and fragment, not unlike a Mercator projection of the Earth. Whereas Greenaway’s grids provide a canvas to be disrupted – by filth, gore, abjection – these curved shots are too disorienting to be disrupted in this way, especially since the lighting often doesn’t correlate with the audience’s position, or seem designed to facilitate the scene for us in a particularly accommodating way. Sometimes we are too far from the action to see it clearly, sometimes the light is too glary, sometimes Lanthimos deliberately shoots from below to make the light glarier, and sometimes the film favours scenes in which the juxtaposition of darkness and light is so pronounced and drastic that it is impossible to totally discern what is happening.
Interestingly, however, these saturated bursts of light never completely dominate the film’s palette, or settle into a sustained expressionist aesthetic either. Often the most disorienting lighting occurs fleetingly, as if to prevent us assuming too much conventional continuity between scenes, while the most dramatic oscillations between light and dark often happen during the daytime, in confined spaces. In particular, Lanthimos often moves from the corridor outside Anne’s chamber, which doesn’t appear to have any windows, to her bedroom, taking us from a completely darkened space to a brightly lit space in ways that defy the ability of natural light to completely orient us, but also resist a more expressionist artificiality either. To make things even more disquieting, some of the scenes are shot with the analog grandeur of an older kind of period drama, while in others light and dark bleed and pool in ways that are clearly digital. While those enormous spaces might sometimes be scored to bursts of classical music in the manner of Greenaway’s films, they also engender a series of percussive soundscapes that percolate throughout the narrative. Sometimes these involve a single series of noises repeated over and over again, while sometimes they involve a low escalating rumbling, but in both cases the noise and the space never quite meet up, even though they appear to be testifying to the same situation within which the camera finds itself. Similarly, while the delivery is never exactly stilted, all the dialogue is somewhat swallowed up by the space, or at least rings out too harshy against the space in its own percussive way, producing a tonal discontinuity encapsulated in Lanthimos’ tendency to fade softly from one scene to the next whenever the angularity of the film appears to peak.
In other words, the aesthetic that Lanthimos outlined in The Killing of a Sacred Deer is intensified here, offsetting the grid of Greenaway’s work with a more diffuse and unsettling zone between diegesis and non-diegesis, between the world of the film and the world of the audience. Too impersonal to situate us in the scene as a participant, but too obtrusive to be a passive spectator, Lanthimos’ camera ultimately embodies the function of the queen herself, carving out the enormous space surrounding her, a space that immediately and necessarily encompasses the curvature of the entire world. That’s far too great a space for the Queen herself to inhabit, let alone Sarah or Abigail, but as the marker of this space the camera can never get close enough to Anne for any sustained period of time to fully commune with her inability to inhabit it either. Instead, it can only approach her person for short periods, and then compensate by retreating to extreme distances and blotting her out with bright light and disorted perspectives. Rather than providing us with Anne’s perspective, or the perspective of any one favourite or courtesan, Lanthimos’ camera embodies the threshold past which Anne’s existence as an individual, above and beyond her role, is not permitted to be countered, producing an inherently discontinuous and disjunctive experience in which the camera precludes the very individuality that it seems to be testifying to, and never quite inhabits the spaces whose borders it manages and defines.
Yet that gesture is also what makes The Favourite so powerful in its vision of the demands of the monarchy. By positioning his camera at the cusp between the demands made by the monarchy, and the demands made upon the monarchy, Lanthimos immediately does away with the consoling fantasy that monarchs, especially past monarchs, are figures that we can sympathise with in the same way as a regular individual. Yet this doesn’t elevate the monarchy to a splendid distance either – just the opposite – since Anne’s body only becomes more wretched whenever she is absorbed into those tableaux that typically convey monarchical splendor. Instead, the “monarch” here stands for the fantasy of a body so regulated and compartmentalized that any actual monarch is destined to seem abjectly undifferentiated by comparison, especially a female monarch, given the tacit assumption throughout the film that the female body is much harder to govern and contain than the male body. In a kind of eccentric thought-experiment, then, Lanthimos takes a contemporary camera attuned to the conventions of period drama and imagines how its function would ramify against an actual eighteenth-century milieu. Every effort that this camera made to reinstate the courtly distance of contemporary period drama would, the film suggests, either end up forcing it to the remote distances of The Favourite in order to maintain the fantasy of monarchical exceptionalism, or else force it to occupy the juncture between Anne’s body and the monarch’s fantastical body in ways that eventually dissociated, dispersed and dissembled its own efforts to maintain a continuous visual field.
In that sense, The Favourite feels like a commentary upon the cameras of period drama as much as anything else, along with the extent to which other contemporary cameras draw on period drama, and the figure of the monarch, in their regulation of the bodies, relations and desires that we see on the big screen. Rather than prevent a narrative in which queerness “subverts” the monarchy in a specific time and place, Lanthimos instead suggests that the monarchy is simply an accentuated form of the bodily regulation that takes place in cinema anyway – a regulation so pronounced that all it requires is for the camera to openly identify itself with it in order to testify to the plethora of unruly impulses, desires and carnality than this monarchical regulation of bodies entails. Openly occupying this position of regulation, the film suggests, is infinitely more powerful than the kinds of false access to the monarchy, and the false access to the body, that we get from films where this regulation is naturalized and absorbed into the mise-en-scene. Only in the last scene does Lanthimos’ camera move away from this role, finally entering Anne’s personal space, and the proprioceptive outlines of her body, as she asks Abigail to massage her leg while leaning upon her head for support.
This image closes the film, and yet at the very moment the camera enters Anne’s space, and tries to conceive of her individual space as something distinct from the world around her, the capacity of the camera to testify to her individuality also breaks down. In a series of sustained shots, the expression drains from both Anne and Abigail’s faces, which become more plastic and material than at any point in the film, gradually losing their recognisability as faces, as purveyors of individual emotion, as Lanthimos overlays the scene with dissonant noises before flickering a series of superimpositions over and through the image. At the last instance, the film doesn’t exactly end so much as dissociate, as the camera’s individual access to Anne actually ends up precluding her individuality, leaving a void in its place in which she is neither Queen nor individual, but instead occupies the space previously occupied by the camera – the space between her self and her role – only to realise that Abigail is even less capable of supporting her, and standing in for the camera, than Sarah. In these final moments, even the drone shots that structured The Killing of a Sacred Deer – and which are so conspicuously absent here – feel personal compared to these last glimpses of Lanthimos’ camera before it disintegrates one of the most original period dramas of the last decade, a period drama that never quite permits itself to dispose of the present.