Us Brits have never been easily provoked by small scandal or political turmoil. We’re all braised to it – today’s ongoing uneasiness of Brexit, for example, has become as much a British tradition as builder’s tea. Civil division, cut-throat debates and leadership coups are very much a part of the furniture, but this does harken the question: has it always been like this? Has such steadfast civil division always been this normalised in Britain? If we compare today’s political strife to our earlier history, is there any chance that we can understand just what the bloody hell is going on today?
With his newest feature, the hilarious, ruthless, phenomenally scripted The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos isn’t looking to understand: to parallel modern political issues with a singular historical moment of the English court is not his main intent. Instead, the comparison arises organically, by default of it all being absurd. The central study of Lanthimos’ brilliantly satirical lens, after all, is of three women locked into a fight for power: his film merely uses political turmoil – two steadfast sides, the Whigs and the Tories, tensely compete as to whether or not England should remain in a bloody European war – as the backdrop for a Barry Lyndon-esque tale of socio-political ascension.
At the centre of the narrative – written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, notably the first film directed but not penned by Lanthimos, and better for it – is Emma Stone’s Abigail Masham, an impoverished young woman whose family had previously belonged to the upper class before a tremendous fall from grace. Arriving at the English court seeking employment, she is met by Sarah Churchill (an icy Rachel Weisz), the primary confidante and secret lover of the ailing, largely bedridden Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) – also Masham’s older cousin – who feels some level of pity for Masham and employs her at the court as a maid. It’s from here that Masham begins her rapid ascent, quickly currying favour with Anne, the two beginning their own tryst; Churchill, threatened, tries to dislodge Masham to no avail.
The study on class and aristocratic hierarchy is most intriguing here. Whilst everyone is looking for ascent in power, the only character to truly hold the keys, Queen Anne, doesn’t actually want to have them. She wallows in depression, having lost her seventeen heirs before they could reach adulthood (replaced, now, by seventeen adored rabbits). Lanthimos, with the touch of an auteur at the height of his creative powers, paints a court of inept, boyish leaders – men who would race ducks and throw fruits at fat, naked men as quickly as they would push for war with France. The parallels with Brexit, Trumpism, and the general what-the-hellery of modern politics are indisputable, if passive, largely made apparent by their shared absurdity.
When Masham eventually becomes Anne’s sole favourite, as has been her intent since she arrived at court, she realises her non-fulfilment. She may be many rungs higher on the socio-political ladder, but she remains subservient to the actual power held by Anne and totally reliant on the fragile favour she has established. Lanthimos’ final shot cements the total power of Anne as something that Masham can never supersede: she may now be the ‘favourite’, but ultimately, this is all that she can ever be.