The Favourite Shows Us What Dark Desires Can Do to Ambitious Women

Pop Culture

The Favourite Shows Us What Dark Desires Can Do to Ambitious Women

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

There’s a moment in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite that is an outcome of how the filmmaker marries the ingredients of a staid historical biopic with a simmering comic intensity of the obsession for power.

In 18th century England, Queen Anne, (Oscar-winning actress Olivia Colman), who is confined to a wheelchair due to gout, is brought in to witness a festive ball that takes place at her court. After greeting her, the revellers – including the Queen’s secret lover, Sarah Churchill (an unforgettable Rachel Weisz) – prepare for a dance-off: They break into a set of hysterical moves with the seriousness that befits a monarchy. As they continue to dance, the camera shifts from their performance to the Queen’s face. At first, she sits there wordlessly gazing at Sarah, her eyes conveying surges of affection. But it takes just a moment for her emotions to see-saw: In the next seconds, her eyes glisten with tears and her face segues from joy to envy, sadness, anger, and finally, powerlessness. In that moment, her crown and her throne are rendered meaningless. Unable to bear the humiliation of being left out, the Queen stops the performance and gets wheeled back into her room where she orders Sarah to fuck her – reclaiming the spotlight that reminds her of her power.

If The Favourite had shades of The King’s Speech, the Queen’s selfishness and all-encompassing demand for attention in this scene wouldn’t also come off as downright hilarious. Or feel like a retelling of Mean Girls, in which high school is replaced by the monarchy. But Lanthimos tweaks the conventional template of a period film and ably digs out the absurdities of women, who get off on power; women who’re in power, in love with the idea of it, or crave it with their whole heart.

Based on real events and people, The Favourite revolves around the aspirations and anguish of three foul-mouthed women: Queen Anne, the ill-suited ruler of Great Britain, who is more concerned with wallowing in self-pity and brokering affection than leading the country to war. Her lover and closest aide, Sarah Churchill, who exploits the Queen’s self-esteem and romantic feelings for her, to run the country on her behalf. And, her cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a former Lady who sets out to threaten Sarah’s utopia by seducing Queen Anne and replacing her.

They balk at the idea of love and have no patience for romance.

What makes The Favourite’s retelling of the period drama all the more delightful and devastating is how Lanthimos subverts the expectations from men and women to bring to life a comedic masterpiece: In the film’s universe, the men exist in the fringes – roaming around wearing wigs, makeup, and squandering their time trying to look pretty. They live at the mercy and moods of the three women, who engineer their fates, elevating and demoting them as they please.

The women, on the other hand, spend the majority of the time looking dishevelled, breaking into tears, throwing tantrums, or racing with lobsters. They balk at the idea of love and have no patience for romance. Instead, they ride horses, shoot birds, and plot their way out of their fate. In one scene, Abigail gives her husband a handjob on their wedding night just so that she can plan her next move without getting distracted by his pleas for sex. Her single-minded attention to the mission at hand – preparing for Sarah’s rebuttal to her betrayal – isn’t even corrupted when he cums; she just mindlessly wipes her hand clean.

To them then, love is just a means to an end – a refreshing exception that refuses to reduce royal women as individuals indifferent to the temptations of power. So often, cinematic descriptions of royalty overlook examining the obsessive relationship royal women share with power. They’re somehow almost always made grateful to the power they can wield; rarely shown excited by it or challenging its limits.

In The Favourite however, Queen Anne, Sarah, and Abigail wield love as a weapon to reveal their darkest desires: Sarah threatens the Queen that she’d reveal her explicit love letters with a newspaper, if the Queen doesn’t take the parliamentary decisions she wants her to; Abigail sleeps with the Queen to become a Lady; and the Queen responds to Abigail’s affections to remind Sarah that she should always be indebted to her. Few period films seem interested in peeling the layers of absurdity that come with an individual believing that they have the power to make or break the fate of an entire country. But The Favourite and its wicked women exist to remind us of the comic devastations of power.