- The Oxonian Review - http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp -

At an Intimate Distance

Daniel Kodsi

The Favourite has an exquisite brutality to it; perhaps the word is cruelty. It exemplifies, while subverting, the maxim that everything is about sex, except sex, which is about power. One of the more exciting aspects of The Favourite is its suggestion that sex is at once necessary and almost entirely beside the point—that while sex might be an indispensable intermediary between everything and power, it is, at the same time, just that: an intermediary. In exploring this point, The Favourite contrasts to excellent effect with, for instance, 2017’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which commits the terminal, and by now boring, error of forgetting that sex, when used as metaphor, represents life partly by misrepresenting it—that all metaphors depict by distorting. The Favourite does not neglect this, does not swap out life for sex; sex and sexual desire figure centrally as engines driving its plot, but they are not of chief concern to any of the film’s characters (except one, who is, accurately enough, male). Above all, The Favourite recognises that, if everything is about sex, and sex is about power, then everything is, at a deeper level, about power: including that which seems only to be about sex.

But how to read everything is about power? It might mean simply that every move in a personal or political relationship (one thing that The Favourite does is remind us how elusive the line can be between the two) is governed by the actor’s urge to have control, or her paranoid compulsion to mask any weakness, or her self-abnegating need to be subjugated by another, or … This, however, like any other dictum about human motivations, is at best a half-truth: the various complexes and causes associated with power constitute an important set of forces in the human psyche, but they do not exhaust psychological explanation. What is closer to true in everything is about power is that nothing can escape, or can escape for very long, being encroached upon by these forces. The cruelty of The Favourite lies in the fact that each of its heroines—the deceptively charming Abigail Hill, the hard, honourable Sarah Churchill, and the desperate Queen Anne—not only betrays herself, but is made to reckon with the fact that she has done so. In forcing these self-confrontations, the film also illustrates what power, and the lack of power, can do to love, and to lovers—how vulnerable even the most secure of relationships can be to the corrosive interplay of one person’s need and another’s frailty.

*

The Favourite, like director Yorgos Lanthimos’ other films (The LobsterThe Killing of a Sacred Deer), does not make much of a secret of what it is about. We open on Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her advisor, childhood friend, and lover Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Queen Anne has just given a speech before Parliament. Sarah sighs tenderly, watching Anne, as the latter’s handmaidens remove her crown. Anne seeks reassurance from Sarah that the speech went well, which Sarah gladly gives. Anne then asks her to ‘say hello to the little ones’, her rabbits. ‘No’, Sarah quickly replies, ‘I love you, but that I will not do.’ ‘If you love me—’ ‘Love has limits.’ ‘It should not.’ Cut to title frame. Cut back to Anne revealing to Sarah that she is giving her a palace; Sarah tells her, half-seriously, that she is mad. Ok: this—Anne’s neediness; Sarah’s reserve; the two women’s differing conceptions of what it is appropriate to give in love—will be a point of conflict, then, both thematically and dramatically. 

Enter, now, Sarah’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who, as Sarah says explicitly at one point, ‘has fallen far’. She is squished in a carriage on her way to the palace, where she hopes to be employed in some capacity—and eventually relieve herself of the need to be employed. Abigail smiles idly at the man across from her. A mistake. He reaches into his pants, where his hand busies itself for a while, until he uses it as Abigail exits the carriage to grab her arse. Ok, so The Favourite is about this too: how rough it is, out there, outside the gilded rooms in which painted noblemen are later shown throwing fruit at a naked buffoon as he hops around, grinning and covering his penis. We learn shortly that it has been particularly rough for Abigail: her father lost her in a card game to ‘a balloon-shaped German with a thin cock’. ‘I guess all the rapes were the hardest’, Abigail tells Anne, understandably, once she has made her way into the Queen’s entourage. ‘It made me feel at their mercy, like I was nothing.’ And then, having elicited Anne’s sympathy: ‘You’re so beautiful.’ 

It is not hard, then, to figure out Abigail’s game; or to see how perfectly poised she is to create tension in Sarah and Anne’s relationship. Abigail is everything that Sarah is not: helpless, sycophantic, fair. Sarah refused to play with Anne’s rabbits; Abigail takes the first chance she gets to tell Anne how wonderful they are. Each rabbit, it turns out, represents a miscarriage that the Queen suffered or a stillborn child or one that died as a baby: there are seventeen. It is, of course, far too late that Anne comes to understand the kindness in Sarah’s refusal to indulge her about her ‘babies’, and the cruelty that underlies Abigail’s claim to love them. 

The Favourite is not actually about Abigail’s ascendance—and her simultaneous descent (which we will come back to)—despite largely being framed as if it were. Rather, it is the story of Anne’s gradual increase in self-knowledge, a process which culminates in her finally realising where Sarah’s virtues in fact lay, how compassionate her coldness really was. It is also, in still more basic terms, the story of a break-up: one that appears impossible right up until the moment that it occurs; yet, somewhat later, is understood to have been inevitable.

Although not, for its inevitability, any less needless. The tragedy of The Favourite is that it is only after her rupture with Sarah is complete—after the centre has irreparably crumbled—that Anne arrives at a clear picture of their relationship. Likewise, Sarah only comes to recognise the perils of her harshness—the concealed disingenuousness in her policies of control and honesty—at precisely the point of no return. Anne realises that Sarah deeply loved her, and that doubting this was to engage in a self-imposed pretence; while Sarah at last perceives that a more genuine respect for Anne would have led her, not to distance herself from the Queen, but to share her love more fully. The tragedy behind the tragedy is that these discoveries were of the sort that could only be made once things had fallen apart; that, often enough, it is only from outside a relationship—with the wreckage behind and all around one—that understanding can be achieved. In refreshingly un-Socratic fashion, The Favourite makes little effort to suggest that the two women are, in the end, better off for being able to see themselves clearly. Little but not none: for we do see in Anne’s face, as the film concludes, a renewed commitment to go on.

*

The Favourite is distinctly in the mode of irony. (That it should also border on the cruel is therefore unsurprising: both irony and cruelty involve the double beat of understanding and detachment—the capacity to see clearly the ordinary meaning of an action, yet for that meaning not to be one’s own.) This fact is reflected not only in the film’s narrative, but also in its cinematography, which handles the characteristic paradox of irony—its insistence on a cool realism, or reflective naturalness—with astonishing adroitness. Much has been made, for good reason, of how brilliantlyThe Favourite emulates natural light; of its destabilising and haunting score; and of how astonishingly rich each frame is, especially at the level of behaviour and expression. The really impressive thing, though, is how effortlessly it holds together these disparate elements: the seamless juxtaposition of the film’s staccato rhythm—which provokes in the viewer a certain feeling of discomfort and discordance, of lack of equilibrium—with its naturalistic performances and seemingly spontaneous humour.

The Favourite is tightly structured, as well, to the point that the three scenes Stone and Weisz share shooting birds outside the palace—each marking a new stage in their power dynamic—strongly resemble checkpoints in a video game. This fact of ironclad narrative control, it should be said, goes a considerable distance towards explaining the puzzle that comprises roughly the final third of the film, which is saved from being a failure primarily by the strength of Colman’s performance, how effectively Colman conveys Anne’s terrible realisation of loss, in the final scene. By the time we are two-thirds through, Abigail has gained the upper hand; so the logic of this particular narrative inexorably demands that, as her victory is consummated, her fate is also sealed. ‘Oh my God’, Sarah says to Abigail, ‘you actually think you have won’. ‘Haven’t I?’, Abigail responds. Necessarily, it remains to be shown that she hasn’t. 

But how much tension can there be in this? Indeed, one senses that Lanthimos himself was bored by having to demonstrate Abigail’s ultimate personal bankruptcy, how quickly, once in power, she becomes lazy, hypocritical, and openly self-indulgent—eventually, we gather, just as willing to step on the powerless as those who used to step on her. No longer under external pressure, Abigail’s defences crumble: she becomes weak, and even worse, stupid. Her poverty relative to Sarah is thereby made clear; the latter’s loyalty and sturdiness, maintained over decades, was not artifice, but the genuine article. We are led to wonder how much of Abigail’s integrity had been beaten out of her before the story began, as well as how far Sarah’s superiority reflects the point that, much of the time, it is only those in positions of privilege who can afford to cultivate the dispositions of authenticity. Abigail’s look of despair and fear, at the film’s close, suggests that, if she had been shallow at the start, she had not believed that she was—that she had not anticipated what she would be sacrificing of herself in trying to survive. 

All of which is fine, and not uninteresting. The problem, though, is that the progression feels mechanical, almost rote: we know just where things are headed, and why. This feeling of just going through the motions is significantly compounded by the fact that Emma Stone is altogether too slight an actress for the part—too desperately unable to evoke the same depths of sentiment, the same tensions and contradictions, as Colman and Weisz. Abigail is a character who apparently, out of felt duty to her father, accepted her role as his gambling debt. Yet nowhere is this sense of honour, or any real indication of internal conflict, to be found in the Abigail we see on screen, whose machinations are painfully transparent and rarely suggestive of even ephemeral regret. Stone’s is a highly competent drama school performance; the difficulty is that The Favourite isn’t La La Land. Where Weisz and Colman imply or hint, Stone unfortunately tends to shout—and hence evinces a lightness, which, in its hopeless earnestness, ends up weighing down the film around her. Instead of three interesting characters, we are left with two and the sketch, or outline, of a third. 

But in any case, the weakness of The Favourite’s final act is of the kind that can only really arise in a highly intelligent work of art. It does not undermine the fact that The Favourite is a remarkably mature reflection on certain themes—most notably sex, power, and gender—that rarely receive such careful treatment. The reason, I might add, that I have barely touched on this third element is not that The Favourite’s approach to gender is less striking than its approach to the first two subjects. It is instead the uncomplicated, almost oblique, manner in which the film itself succeeds in its treatment of gender; it manages to discuss gender by way of talking about sex and power. It is indeed here that The Favourite’s maturity is perhaps most prominently on display: the film is not aggressively self-aware about the fact that its central characters are all female and that two are in positions of considerable power (Queen Anne officially, Sarah Churchill unofficially); but it doesn’t make the opposite mistake either, of marching them around as if they were men who happened to have donned women’s skins and skirts. This appearance of naturalness—an appearance that could only have been achieved by the exercise of constant control—is of course just one more instance of the intelligence that is manifest throughout the film; and it provides one answer, an encouraging one, to how far the ironic stance can succeed.

Daniel Kodsi [1] is reading for a BPhil at Balliol College.