“The Favourite”: A Star-Studded Lesbian Restoration Period Drama for Us All

The fight for the queen’s affections heats up and remains on a rolling, rollicking boil full of wildly entertaining scheming and viciousness—threats, poisonings, blackmail, intrigue.

Displaying the jealous tensions and power dynamics between three women as simply an opportunity to show women behaving badly and to toy with pseudo-lesbian attractions—so many films have utilized this as a plot basis over the years. And oh, how tired it has become. So, oh, how refreshing it is to watch Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz transcend those tired constrained clichés (while still behaving very badly indeed) in the hilarious new period drama, The Favourite!

This lush production from Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) carries on the director’s preoccupation with sexuality and power dynamics while offering up his most conventional, yet still edgy, narrative to date.

The Favourite has an above-average and frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious script by co-writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara; moody creative cinematography full of odd angles and fisheye lenses by Robbie Ryan (Philomena) and ambitious innovative cutting by Lathimos’s regular editor, Yorgos Mavropsaridis.

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We’re in early 1700s England—the ups and downs of the war with France serve as the film’s political backdrop alongside the machinations of court life as various personalities grapple for power, influence and, well, favo[u]r.

Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, above) is the frumpy, pathetic, half-mad, and gout-ridden monarch whose indecisiveness and vulnerability leave her easily manipulated by her dear friend Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (someone please give Rachel Weisz an Oscar for this), a half-sycophantic, half-sadistic viper whose position of power is suddenly threatened by the arrival of her seemingly innocent but increasingly ruthless cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) who now vies for the queen’s affections.

All three leads are terrific but Rachel Weisz (bottom photo, at right) steals the film as the gorgeous Lady Marlborough stomping around in her jodhpurs and always with a sassy line on her lips. “I have a thing for the weak,” she taunts Emma Stone’s Abigail at one point.

For secondary characters Lathimos throws in the duck-toting eccentric Prime Minister Godolphin (James Smith); Abigail’s hapless noble love-interest, Masham (played by Joe Alwyn aka Taylor Swift’s boyfriend who can also currently be seen in Boy Erased) and effeminate nobleman Harley (Nicholas Hoult, A Simple Man, Mad Max: Fury Road) whom Lady Marlborough dismissively teases: “Your mascara is running.”
 

The film’s bitchy dialogue lends it an extra campy air. One-liners abound. A few favorites from Lady Marlborough to Abigail include: “You’re pretty when outraged.” And: “Let’s shoot something.” And, on Masham’s infatuation with Abigail, “He’s cunt-struck.”

The fight for the queen’s affections heats up and remains on a rolling, rollicking boil full of wildly entertaining scheming and viciousness—threats, poisonings, blackmail, intrigue. And just a drop or two of tenderness to keep everyone on their toes. “Love has limits,” Lady Marlborough succinctly points out to the queen, who replies in equal brevity as if completing a poem, “It should not.”

In one of the highlights of the film, at one of the court’s lush gatherings, Lady Marlborough engages in a hilariously anachronistic dance with a male courtier (think Pulp Fiction homage in Restoration costume). Witnessing their seeming attraction to one another the petulant queen has an outburst of jealousy. She flees to her bedroom, with Lady Marlborough attempting to assuage her fears. And director Lanthimos brilliantly unfolds a scene that at last reveals what we have already been suspecting. Spoiler alert: the queen and Lady M are lovers. Historical aside: The screenplay is drawn from factual research.

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As the pair enter the queen’s bedchamber we feel almost certain the two women are about to make out. It turns out that Emma Stone (above) is unexpectedly hiding inside. Lanthimos cuts to Stone and we watch her stunned and amazed facial expression as she watches the two women for nearly a full minute before he finally cuts to show us what we are dying to see—indeed they are passionately kissing and the scene continues to build as the queen passionately and succinctly urges Lady M: “Fuck me.” A command that is promptly fulfilled as they proceed to the queen’s bed.

Cunt-struck, indeed.

One of the most fun things about the film is how matter-of-fact Lanthimos is about all these lesbian goings-on. Abigail threatening Lady Marlborough with blackmail does become a key part of the plot (she mentions that she now knows her: “biggest secret”) but none of the women are depicted as having the kind of queer shame that’s usually part and parcel of a period film. The Favourite is much too busy enjoying the crazy lesbionic drama to bog us down in such tedious old tropes.

Happily we subsequently get to experience Abigail’s seduction of the queen as well. As an increasingly complex SM-y psychology unfolds amongst the three we can’t help but be reminded of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Despite the fact that Lanthimos is married to French actress Ariane Labed and so is presumably straight, he certainly seems to have a very queer sensibility.

The Favourite is already getting buzz as an Oscar contender, in particular for its three lead actresses. It also clearly deserves a nod for best original screenplay, which is so incredibly smart and packed with the kind of often edgy bon mots and witticisms one associates with the literature of the era. There is even an actual reference to Restoration poet John Dryden in the script—with Lady Marlborough saying she is in search of her Dryden as she unshelves a dozen or so volumes in the library while hurling them one at a time at young Abigail. The best of these Drydenesque lines include:

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“You are too mean and uncaring some days.” [Says the queen to Lady M]

“As it turns out, I am capable of much unpleasantness.” [Abigail to Lady M]

“I will not lie. That is love.” [Lady M to the queen]

And then of course the queen’s not so Drydenesque explanation to Lady M about why she’s attracted to Abigail:

“I like it when she puts her tongue inside me.”

The Favourite opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday November 23, and theaters across the country in subsequent weeks.

Jenni Olson is a is one of the world's leading experts on LGBT cinema history and a co-founder of PlanetOut.com. Her latest film project is "The Royal Road."
@JenniOlsonSF