IN AN EARLIER MOVIE, The Lobster (2015), writer–director Yorgos Lanthimos explored issues of compulsory heterosexuality in a surprising way. In that far-off world, the cost of failing to marry was one’s humanity, quite literally. That is to say, the punishment for the single life was the Kafkaesque fate of being turned into an animal. The film’s title refers to one of the options on the bestial reincarnation menu, the only degree of choice afforded to those who failed at the dating game. While that film drew critical acclaim and a cult following, its outlandish premise and deadpan humor proved a bit alienating for casual filmgoers.
Lanthimos’ latest effort, The Favourite (2018), unites two alumnæ from The Lobster—Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman—with Emma Stone in a triple-protagonist historical drama that takes a somewhat more conventional approach to storytelling while continuing to explore the politics of sexuality. The film’s first focal character is Abigail Hill (Stone), an aristocratic woman who has drastically lost social and financial standing, and who aims to get it back at any cost. She is dropped off—actually, thrown off—at Kensington Palace and applies for work there. She’s offered a job as the maid of Sarah Churchill (Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough.
Lady Marlborough seems altogether indifferent to Abigail, but it doesn’t hurt that Abigail has knowledge of herbal remedies that relieve the suffering of the gout-afflicted Queen Anne (Colman). At any rate, Lady Marlborough has far bigger concerns than the fate of a maid. She is personal aide and unofficial advisor to the queen during an unpopular war with France, and her own husband is leading the troops. Lady Marlborough wishes to cajole the queen into committing more resources to the war, though it is not at all clear whether her husband’s welfare has anything to do with this.
Indeed this film has many strong suits, the most impressive of which is its ability to cultivate our emotional investment in a group of characters whose motives are largely veiled. The only fully transparent character is Abigail, who declares: “I am on my side. Always.” When Lady Marlborough finds herself stretched thin over affairs of state that the oblivious queen is ignoring, she makes the dire mistake of sending the opportunistic Abigail in her place as the queen’s attendant. The queen is at first indignant at being entertained by a servant, but Abigail realizes that while the queen is the most powerful figure in the state, she is also the most easily manipulated. They bond over the queen’s pet rabbits, one for each of the queen’s seventeen deceased children. The rabbits are very versatile as symbols go, representing both the scale of the queen’s extraordinary suffering and her complete obtuseness about the suffering that she inflicts on her subjects. While her citizens fight and die in a war that she cannot remember the motive for, she toddles around her quarters doing all of the things that a stereotypical Marie Antoinette would do.
From here, the film becomes rather like a King Lear reboot. Queen Anne is Lear, powerless to distinguish affection for ambition. The roles of earnest Cordelia and conniving Goneril are joined in the conflicted impulses of Lady Marlborough. On a clandestine tour of the queen’s personal library, Abigail becomes the unsuspecting audience for a lesbian tryst between Lady Marlborough and Queen Anne. This leaves both the aristocrat and the monarch quite vulnerable, but Abigail has something far more creative than blackmail in store for them. She eventually formulates a plan, a key part of which involves letting the queen catch her fully naked in the royal bed.
By the time Lady Marlborough catches onto her subterfuge, it’s already too late. In the film’s cattiest and most diverting moments, the two women drop all pretense, feverishly sparring with each other for the queen’s favor. Lady Marlborough has many more advantages than Abigail but one classic disadvantage: humanity. She is ill-prepared to match Abigail’s viciousness, or to anticipate how far Abigail will go to take advantage. A fall from a horse (precipitated by a cup of poisoned tea, courtesy of Abigail) causes Lady Marlborough to go missing for several days. While she is nursed back to health by a prostitute in a brothel, Abigail pulls off a social promotion of epic proportions.
The film’s cynical take on marriage is both chilling and riveting. All of these women have husbands at some point, but the men are mostly absent and are portrayed merely as political opportunities rather than as romantic ones. The question that poignantly haunts the film is whether the unions between women are equally utilitarian. Despite the fact that the queen is a petulant, obese, bilious woman with clubbed feet, the film suggests that, after all, Lady Marlborough’s love for her is real. Yet the deadliest mistake a woman can make in this Darwinian narrative is to get caught actually caring for someone else. Just as in The Lobster, humanity in this echelon is nearly impossible to preserve.
J. Ken Stuckey, a Boston-based writer, is a senior lecturer in English and media studies at Bentley University.