Spoiler alerts don’t come any clearer than the headline of this post. Yorgos Lanthimos’ tragicomedy The Favourite is finishing up its North American run before it heads down under to open in Australia on Boxing Day, and I caught it during the week.
Or it caught me. The trailer makes it look both hilarious and crazed. And it’s both of those things, but I was not ready for it to be so tender and achingly sad. I don’t really have the words to describe it beyond the usual clichés of cinematic review: as Sarah Churchill, Lady Marlborough, Rachel Weisz effortlessly exceeds her turn in My Cousin Rachel, while Olivia Colman gives an arresting, career-defining performance as Queen Anne, at sea with her grief, her vessel breaking down around her, tossed about by tempests of loneliness and rage. Emma Stone is part Mean Girl, part hooker with a heart of glass.
It ends with more dissolution than resolution. (Yes, that’s an editing pun. Not sorry.) Lanthimos perhaps intends to leave the audience with questions, but I’m a very literal person and I want answers. My thoughts after the jump.
The film invites us to see Abigail (Emma Stone) as the villain, coming between the lifelong friends and lovers ‘Mrs Morley’ (Queen Anne, Colman) and ‘Mrs Freeman’ (Lady Marlborough, Weisz) in hopes of securing her future as the Queen’s handservant.
There’s conflict, of course, as Lady Sarah realises what’s afoot and tries to head off (ahem) her dear cousin Abigail. Abigail plots and escalates at every turn, and as the film draws to a close, Lady Sarah has been evicted from the palace. She is soon to be banished from the country altogether, along with her husband Lord Marlborough, on charges of diverting funds from the palace budget — charges we are invited to believe Abigail has trumped-up.
And yet, as men in uniform ride up to announce the banishment, Lady Marlborough smiles, saying she’s tired of England and it might be nice to leave the country for a while. You what? There’s a moment earlier on where she tells her cousin, ‘you think you’ve won, but we’re not even playing the same game.’
Meanwhile, in the Queen’s bedchamber, a debauched Abigail presses her boot down on one of the seventeen rabbits Anne keeps — as living reminders of her seventeen miscarriages. Anne, by now paralysed on one side by stroke and lying half-conscious in bed, hears its scream. She tumbles out of the bed, using a chair to haul herself upright, and demands Abigail kneel and rub her leg. Roughly, she grabs a handful of Abigail’s hair, leaning on Abigail’s head to steady herself.
It’s a strikingly physical act of dominance and we’re invited to see it as the Queen enacting the human equivalent of Abigail’s cruelty to the rabbit. But as the scene plays on, the camera rests alternately on Anne’s thousand-yard stare and Abigail’s face, at first disgusted and enraged, softens… and the scene dissolves into a field of hopping rabbits.
What the fuck.
The ending depends on being able to perceive two things at once: Lady Marlborough, both loving and conniving, is a dedicated servant while also playing the long game, looking out for herself. I’m certain she took the money, knowing Anne’s life was coming to an end and so preparing an exit strategy for herself. Abigail, by contrast, is so determined to flee her ugly past, she cannot read the play and does not plan ahead.
I’m reminded of de Certeau’s distinction between tactics and strategy. The powerful have strategy, which is long-term and proactive; the poor and weak have only tactics, which are short term and responsive. Tactics can, at the right moment, prevail — but not this time. When the real Queen Anne had a stroke, she was dead within the month.
And the ambivalence of the ending itself is revealed if you can see Queen Anne as both monster and woman. Yes, her surface impulse is to dominate Abigail, but the form this impulse takes speaks to her desperate grief: her eyes glaze over as Abigail, kneeling, clutches her leg, like a child, Anne’s hand on her head, in her hair, like a mother’s. And then the slow dissolve into a field of her lost children.