Several queens shuffled into Theater 11 to watch Yorgos Lanthimos’ period treatment of a much forgotten queen named Anne who ruled England during the 18th century. I was surprised to see so many gays around me, considering Jennifer Lopez was posing in pink chiffon just yards away (the same Regal Cinema was coincidentally hosting the world premiere of her latest flick). Was The Favourite really a bigger queer draw than JLo?
The next two hours made a compelling case for such.
Lanithimos’ often hilarious and always bizarre film depicts, on the surface, a love triangle between Queen Anne, her longtime confidante Sarah Churchill, and newcomer Abigail Hill. Disgraced ex-Lady Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at the palace in search of employment, hoping Sarah (Rachel Weisz) will pity the down-on-her-luck ingenuine — they’re cousins. Sarah obliges and puts her to work as a kitchen maid. However, ambition seems to run in their family, because as soon as Abigail notices how her cousin has worked the queen’s favor to land the most influential position on the Royal Court, she devises a plan to do the same. How? The queen’s knickers, naturally.
Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is an inept ruler whose charming qualities end at her penchant for bunnies (each one acquired after her 17 failed pregnancies). Physically and emotionally unsound, she spends most of her time crying or screaming at her subjects. Her temperament doesn’t fair much better when it comes to matters of state (she pretends to faint before Parliament when faced with making a decision about a tax law), and relies entirely on Sarah to comprehend every political document that passes before her rapidly deteriorating eyesight. She’d be a terror if she weren’t so pathetic, and soon the viewer finds themselves sympathizing for a woman so crippled by her insecurity that she yells at a chamber boy, “Did you just look at me?” He shakes his head. “Look at me!” He looks. “How dare you! Close your eyes!”
It seems the queen’s one reprieve is sex — with Sarah, that is. After demanding she be rolled out of her own ball (she’s wheelchair bound from a gout flare-up, obviously), she asks Sarah to “fuck her.” Sarah obliges and Abigail stumbles upon them mid-clotial and thus plots to position herself similarly within the monarch’s graces.
Throughout the film, England is at war with France, but the central conflict of The Favourite is the battle for the queen’s affection. Weisz and Stone make thrilling adversaries, and it’s a joy to watch them try to out-manipulate one another. However, the film belongs to Colman, whose tortured performance as Queen Anne is perhaps one of the saddest displays of leadership since, well, our President. But unlike the latter, Colman’s oligarch seems to want to be good, but simply lacks the emotional capacity.
The woman-on-woman sex that dominates The Favourite isn’t exactly a queer political statement; the film’s characters deploy their sexuality as they do other tools in their warbox, less concerned with who they’re fucking than with how it’ll advance them. Then again, wasn’t it another queer who said that, fundamentality, sex is about power? Director Yorgos Lanthimos seems to agree, often angling the camera to betray the character’s true power dynamic, regardless of status, as they manipulate one another.
While The Favourite is unlikely to be inducted into the lesbian film canon, it’s undoubtedly queer in its sexual fluidity. Abigail and Sarah also sleep with men, but both only appear truly intimate with Queen Anne. By resisting the urge to make women fucking other women about the fact that women are fucking other women, the film presents queerness as a given reality rather than a rumination on our “differentness” (cough cough Call Me By Your Name). As I left the theater I asked myself, did I just watch a two hour period poly pansexual porno?
Regardless, I’m not complaining. Unorthodox direction and a profane script keep the audience on their toes and permit the film’s actresses to shine. In the past, I’ve been mostly indifferent to Emma Stone’s charms, but when given the chance to play someone other than an earnest do-gooder, it becomes clear why she is a movie star. However, despite stellar supporting work, it’s really all about the queen. Incredible costumes and intricate production are effortlessly chewed up by Olivia Colman, whose tour-de-force turn as Queen Anne has perhaps drowned Lady Gaga’s bid for Best Actress, delving into emotional depths while Gaga’s Star is Born waded in the shallows. By the end of the film, you kind of wish you were her favorite. Sorry, favourite.
Jacob Seferian is a Texas-bred journalist living in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @disco__bitch. That's disco, two underscores, bitch.