Diversity is one of the New York Film Festival’s greatest aspects. Filmmakers from all around the world, both male and female, come together to share their work. It is with diversity in mind that The Favourite takes the festival’s center stage. Co-written by a woman and primly following women in an era that often places females in sub-missive and/or secondary roles, The Favourite showcases a refreshing role reversal. Period pieces frequently depict women as one-dimensional eyelash-batting, goody two-shoes characters, tropes that are thrown into the trash by director Yorgos Lanthimos. But despite all the barrier-breaking portrayals the film does so well, it takes equivalent steps backs with a cliche-filled narrative.
The film is set in the 18th century around the monarchy of Anne, Queen of Great Britain and her closest royal advisers. This may sound like a rather dry political drama; however, this is anything but the case. Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, (Rachel Weisz) is as close as anybody can be to a Queen—aside from being the King, of course. Sarah jokes and laughs with the queen, cares for her, and, perhaps most importantly of all, whispers in her ear, having her will acted on by—an increasingly apparent—incompetent ruler. We are never quite certain if Sarah truly cares for Queen Anne, or if she is only using the monarch as a puppet. This question burns brighter in our minds when Sarah’s cousin Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) arrives at the palace hoping to be granted a servant position. Soon that position is not only granted, she manages to weasel her way to increasingly higher titles until she is finds herself whispering in the Queen’s other ear, and so a power struggle begins between the two cousins for Anne’s affections.
Still think the film sounds a little dreary, don’t worry. Much of The Favourite could be considered comedic. Sarah and Abigail find themselves in humorous situations, often brought about by the Queen and her childish manner-isms. The men of the film attempt gain a foothold in this very small power circle themselves, only for the women of the picture to swiftly and rather amusingly put the guys in their place, which is uplifting to witness during such unequal times. The Queen is the only exception to a strong female here, though. She screams and shots when not getting her way, all the while demanding to be babied by her two closest advisers. But as Abigail gains a greater base in the Queen’s standing, she starts to suspect there may be more to Sarah and Anne’s relationship than meets the eye while Sarah senses both her cousin’s encroachment and her steady loss of standing.
This is where the feature started to lose its grip on me. I adored the characters’ out-of-time strength, their ability to take charge as women during a time dominated by men, and their comical misadventures. Yet whereas Abigail began the film as a likable lower-class woman fighting to be recognized for more than just which family she was born into, she soon becomes just as cynical and as selfish as the tyrant we perceive Sarah to be. What kind of message does this send to people watching the film; that you have to be ruthless and self-centered and cruel to carve your own place in the world? If so, it is a terrible message. Moreover, the narrative of a kind person overthrowing a dictator just to become that dictator themselves has been shoved down our throats time since time immemorial. See The Favourite for its strong leads and superb acting, but not for their actions and choices they make.
Photo by Dean Moses