Favourite The Favourite
On the costume drama and its discontents
“The script was amazing, and then you just do what’s written down, I think. Without the writers, without words, we are just bumbling around, miming. So if the script is good, it’s allthere. I think.” (Olivia Coleman, in Sardo 2019)
In her first interview after winning the Oscar for the role of Queen Ann in The Favourite, Olivia Coleman succeeded - amidst obligatory chatter about emotions, husband, and kids - to mention one thing that truly matters about The Favourite, but is often forgotten: the script.
It took 20 years of meticulous historical research, and an international team of three foreign-born producers, a Greek director, and an Australian screenwriter to transform “a spec script from a first-time writer” into a film that has won the most prestigious prizes in the western world. The film tells a story of three women at the centre of the court of Queen Anne: the monarch herself (Olivia Colman); her lover and trusted adviser Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), who in this telling essentially ruled in Anne’s place; and servant Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who supplants Lady Sarah in the royal affections, stealing her position.
Anne was the Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland between 8 March 1702 and 1 May 1707. Under her reign, on 1 May 1707, two of her realms, the kingdoms of England and Scotland, united as a single sovereign state known as Great Britain. She continued to reign as Queen of Great Britain and Ireland until her death in 1714. The story of The Favourite is, says the publicity for the film, a true story. It was literally discovered by the film’s scriptwriter Deborah Davis, who came across the seeds of the story in a newspaper article: “It was like a snippet. The snippet was, everyone knows that Queen Anne was having an affair with Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. I’m a keen historian but I didn’t know anything about this” (Gant 2019). Later she discovered other primary sources, including letters between Sarah and Anne, and Sarah’s memoir “about the breakdown of her relationship with Anne and how Abigail became the absolute favorite….”
This is a nice paradox: the film publicizes the discovery that the founding British monarch was a lesbian, but the actress impersonating this monarch in the film needs to promote herself through a small-talk about her husband and kids.
Not every historical period likes costume dramas. First, they are extremely expensive to make. The cinematic preferences for costume dramas alternate in time with much less expensive contemporary narratives, filmed on location in a documentary-like fashion that permits new unknown authors to enter the filmmaking and also to try out innovative approaches. Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of The Favourite, emerged in the period when the love of the times was on the side of on-location real-life films.
Apart from their high costs, the costume dramas also have a significant advantage, they contain imagination - of course they require imagination, since their audiences have no experience of what they are about, but they suppress it at the same time, since they put it into a historical context, a “true story” brand. This is an important advantage since the times that favor costume dramas are the times that favor fantasy and imagination, so other, more potentially courageous and subversive genres blossom too. The costume drama is the most politically correct among the fantastic narratives, from musicals to science fiction to animated superhero movies.
The “true story” label curbs the imagination by referring to reality. But reality itself remains within the realm of imagination. As we have learned from nouvelle histoire and its’ critique of historicism, what people believed has always been more important than presumed “reality”. Classic example is Alexander the Great - while traditional historicist method would be to search for the indications about how he “really” was, the nouvelle histoire proved that this is completely irrelevant, because people acted according to what they believed about him, and they believed Alexander the Great was - great, that is, strong, courageous and a womanizer. Another thing that we see in this example very clearly is, that historical imagination is shaped by social structures and power relations – the imagining of Alexander the Great incorporates the dominant values of western society such as physical force, masculinity, heterosexuality. Historic imagination is shaped by power relations and imagined attributes of a historic person reflect the values of the society that does the imagining, its’ preferences and its’ desires.
For this reason, I believe Yorgos Lanthimos was the right choice to direct The Favourite. He bent the socially shaped imagination of the iconic British queen a little more, a little further than a traditional approach to costume drama would permit. In his own words, “I like to construct films in a way that makes you feel a bit uncomfortable, but so you’ll still be able to enjoy them, be intrigued and start to think about the meaning of things.” (Ramsey2019). Lanthimos started by directing TV adverts, music videos, short films, and theatre productions, in 2004 he was part of the creative team behind the opening and closing ceremonies of the Athens Olympics.
Visually, his films are designed to perfection, and the beauty of his images is in direct contrast to the actions and situations of his characters, individuals often struggling beneath the control of a perverse, morally abhorrent system or institution. I think the best name for this distinct aesthetics is visual cynicism, since he meticulously constructs an ideal, polished, familiar universe, and then makes it completely estranged by only changing a small detail. Here, his work resembles David Lynch, think only about the intro to the Blue Velvet, a family house surrounded by a garden, with a white fence, on the green grass, and in the midst of the grass - a cut off ear. Only the Lanthimos’ films are much more extreme. An excellent example is the Dogtooth (2009), inspired by the case of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian who for decades kept his daughter locked in the cellar of his home. In Dogthoot, three children, all now in their twenties, are locked from the world, in a fenced compound for the entirety of their lives. As they are made to believe that they will be released once they lose a dogtooth, at a certain point they actually start pulling their teeth out. This cynicism permits Lanthimos to critically challenge social conventions without directly engaging with politics.
Unlike the Dogtooth, he did not write the script for The Favourite, so his space for creating a fictional universe was limited by historical facts, but his visual cynicism still enabled him to critically address the mainstream politically correct narrative and imagining. Far the most visually appealing element is the stock of pet white rabbits in the Queen Ann’s bedroom, and the way they are applied throughout the film to outline emotional developments, up to the point when Abigail secretly squeezes one with her heel. On the other hand, such slightly out-of-the-ordinary moments, halfway between historical truisms and Lanthimos signature, are present all through the film, for example the scene in the fully packed coach when the man, sitting in front of Abigail, takes his penis in his hand. The Favourite is not the best Lanthimos film but he did establish a distance from the mainstream cinematic narrative of a costume drama.
So much so that, actually, there is too much distancing made possible by The Favourite. First, the distance from politics. Politics is a serious activity and ever since the dangers of global warming began to become real, more and more people are aware that thisdemands at least minimum engagement with politics from every single person. So it makes sense that a queen is portrayed like any other person, no doubt this is one of the reasons for the popularity of The Favourite. What I do not like is, that serious historical events, international relations, war, and peace, are interpreted as a matter of personal whims. Female personal whims, to be exact. Such interpretation makes politics a sort of tabloid affair, but at the same time keeps serious civic engagement with politics at a distance. In a similar way, by apparent proximity, the film also keeps at a distance its presumed main topic, female homosexuality. The female homosexuality is the least socially accepted among all sexual identities, and this is in strong conflict with the mainstream request for tolerance. The Favourite, according to my opinion, provides a way out of this conflict, since it projects the uncanny to the past, to the British, to the Royals ... However you look at it, “they” are “not us”. This is the reason why the film is so popular, at least in Slovenia, among the traditional guardians of the status quo. With The Favourite as their favourite film, they can be tolerant, politically engaged, concerned for the others, and still be in charge of what is right and what is wrong, without any risk of a change, without renouncing the traditional values and ways of living, and without re-distributing the cultural, social and political powers.
Gant, C. (2019) 20 years in the making: The story behind Bafta front runner 'The Favourite’. Screen Daily, January 10. Obtained at: https://www.screendaily.com/features/ 20-years-in-the-making-the-story-behind-bafta-front-runner-the-favourite/5135627.article
Ramsay, J. (2019) 7 Yorgos Lanthimos Movies Ranked From Worst To Best. Taste of Cinema, February 20. Obtained at: http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2019/all-7-yorgoslanthimos-movies-ranked-from-worst-to-best/
Sardo, M. (2019) 91st Oscars Backstage Interview. Olivis Coleman. Popaxiom. Obtained at: https://www.popaxiom.com/91st-oscars-backstage-interview-olivia-colman/