At the outset of The Favourite, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ scabrous and nihilistic romp amid the English royals, Emma Stone — playing Abigail, a clever girl from a fallen family — faces an unpleasant choice: either tolerate the wretched sexual attentions of a man (in this case, a wanking carriage-mate, though she has already suffered for years in a thoroughly loveless marriage) or be cast out (in this case, face first into a muddy road that seems to double as a sewage ditch). She opts for the latter, and so arrives at the palace of Queen Anne (played with ruined majesty by Olivia Colman) to beg employment from her cousin Lady Sarah (a fearsome Rachel Weisz) stinking without but with her dignity intact.
Once inside, her great goal is to scrub from herself every putrid particle of her impoverished past, and she isn’t particularly particular about how she manages it, even if it means biting the well manicured hand that fed her. (In this world virtue is a luxury of the rich, one for which they have precious little use. When a fellow pays an uninvited visit to her quarters, she asks him, “Are you here to seduce me or rape me?” “Madam, I am a gentleman!” he replies in shocked tones. “Oh, rape then,” she fires back.)
Abigail is a woman, you see, doomed by the unfeeling dictates of a man’s world to either peddle her ass in the street (a crude expression, but one put considerably more crudely in the film, which delights in highborn vulgarity almost as much as it delights in the bulgy warp of fisheye lenses) or manipulate it into an advantageous marital match. Her efforts in this regard provide the film with one of its more recognizably human dynamics: she may kick her suitor in the crotch during a sylvan rendezvous, but it’s a flirtatious kick in the crotch, its brutal ache eased by a sweet smile and perhaps just a hint of feeling. As opposed to the blows she reserves for Lady Sarah, whose noblesse oblige and familial loyalty are both useful and appreciated – up to a point. Sarah is, after all, the dotty Queen’s favourite, and therefore, ultimately, an obstacle to Abigail’s rise.
There are no heroes in The Favourite; there is not even the possibility of a hero. There are only sad creatures driven by their various needs. The Queen needs comfort: she mourns her 17 failed pregnancies, writhes under her gout, and longs for affectionate attention (offered to her in intimate fashion by both Abigail and Sarah). Abigail needs security, and a return to the life taken from her by her father’s stupidity. And Sarah needs her husband safely off at war, so that she might tend to her one true love in the royal bedchamber. There are some men with needs as well, but they are merely tools to be manipulated or problems to be solved. What was that about this being a man’s world?
There is, however, a morbid morality to the proceedings, one in which decadence is its own punishment, and the surest sign of keeping your dignity intact — remember Abigail at the outset? — is to get as far away from the levers of power as possible. It turns out there are worse things than smelling like the sewer. Lanthimos’ latest is mordant, gorgeous, witty, bawdy, bruising, depressing, and disheartening. I thought I had a taste for such things. But by the crushing final scene, I wasn’t so sure.