Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenplay: Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan; Editing: Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Production Design: Fiona Crombie; Art Direction: Alice Felton
Costumes: Sandy Powell; Score: Komeil S. Hosseini
Stars: Olivia Colman (Queen Anne), Rachel Weisz (Lady Sarah Marlborough), Emma Stone (Abigail Hill), Nicholas Hoult (Robert Harley), Joe Alwyn (Samuel Masham), Mark Gatiss (John Churchill), James Smith (Sidney Godolphin), Jenny Rainsford (Mae), Mark Gatiss (Lord Marlborough)
“The gods of Greece are cruel! In time all men will learn to live without them!” – Jason & the Argonauts (1963)
Director Yorgos Lanthimos is a strangely idiosyncratic talent that takes some getting used to. It just doesn’t do to have preconceived notions about his movies, because no matter what viewers may be anticipating at the outset, his tales invariably take such bizarre and unexpected turns that by the end we can’t fathom what we could have been thinking going in. Lanthimos rambles off his grimly moralizing fables in a sardonic, removed tone, setting them in a pastoral Arcadia populated by hares and sheep, like the free ranging ones roaming about the background of The Lobster. The Favourite is representative.Having fallen on hard times, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) presents herself at the court of indolent Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) seeking employment from her well-placed cousin Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), the queen’s closest confidante and the real power behind the throne. Initially assigned menial tasks as a kitchen scullion, Abigail keeps eyes and ears open for any opportunity to insinuate herself into the queen’s good graces and advance her station, even aligning herself with Sarah’s arch enemy Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), leader of the Tory party. As Abigail begins making inroads at court, and Sarah sees her own influence over the queen waning, the two rivals find themselves engaged in a desperate battle of wits for Anne’s favor. For all its eccentricities, The Favourite may be Lanthimos’ most ‘normal’ movie to date, which would explain the number of Academy Award nominations bestowed upon it (it tied with Roma). But considering the director’s litany of previous work, which includes such disturbingly asymmetrical entries as Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the concept of normalcy is relative in his case. Though it boasts all the respectable trappings of a prestigious period piece, The Favourite isn’t a movie that wants to be liked, any more than Lanthimos’ earlier efforts did. Indeed, I’m surprised its acerbic tone didn’t alienate more viewers (though the fact that it only won one out of its eleven Oscar nominations may indicate that it did). All the formal pomp and circumstance aside, there isn’t a single person in the entire thing that viewers can fully warm too or emotionally invest themselves in, which may be an accomplishment of some sort itself. Consequently, we observe events unfold from Lanthimos’ own aloof, detached vantage. I’m afraid the director tends to class mere mortals as lesser beings, looking down upon his creations from an objective distance, like an omnipotent Greek god, as they wallow in the mud, rut like pigs, or prey upon one another, abasing themselves by engaging in such self-defeating and pointless pursuits.A macabre black comedy, tonally The Favourite proves an uneasy medley of the brooding control the director exerted over The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and the absurdism evident in The Lobster. Lanthimos appears more comfortable encouraging audiences to laugh freely here, even while jangling our nerves just as tautly as he has in the past. To comprise the score, Komeil S. Hosseini chose a selection of complimentary classical pieces, including outright arias and more ominous musical chords that sound as if someone were sawing away at the brass section, resulting in notes so discordant they might have been lifted from the spectral realms of The Witch. It sounds otherworldly at times, suitable for domains dominated by inhuman forces greater than ourselves.The Greek director came of age in a land immersed in antiquities, haunted by its own classical mythos, and he’s consistently envisioned his movies in that same context – tales framed in terms of ancient lore and fables. He holds a mirror up to a deceptive reality which on the surface only appears to have turned its back on that ancient pagan world still dominated by cold, remote gods – primitive titans ruled by their primal, irrational impulses.His characters inevitably find themselves ensnared in the web of inexorable fate divined by these deities according to an arbitrary set of rules handed down eons ago and forgotten in the dim mists of time. As star Colin Farrell observed of Lanthimos and frequent scenarist Efthymis Filippou in the making-of-featurette accompanying The Lobster’s home release, “They create a very, very complete world that operates under a very specific set of rules, and those rules for me are beyond the reproach of the audience…”Quite often, as in The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the ‘rules’ of Lanthimos’ game may make no logical sense whatever, but if one suspends disbelief, can still touch on deeper, emotional truths at a subconscious level beneath rational thought. Indeed there’s mythmaking of a sort discernible throughout Lanthimos’ uncompromising cannon, but not at all in the manner to which western moviemaking has made us accustomed. As far as the director is concerned, the Greek pantheon has never stopped holding court on Mt. Olympus, continuing over the intervening millennia to curse, bless, and influence mankind according to their own erratic and perverse whims.Indeed, according to the director, the old gods derive their primary pleasure from setting their human creations upon one another for their personal amusement, wagering, as if in an infinite chess game, on the ultimate outcome. Humanity may futilely struggle, as an Abigail heretofore buffeted by chance does, stating, “I must take control of my circumstances.” But no matter how well they master the strict guidelines controlling their fortunes, Lanthimos’ characters are tools who can’t escape their preordained fates, simply ending up tired and stringy by their futile exertions of free will. In the director’s movies, there’s an omnipresent fate overcasting everyone’s behavior and determining their destiny, whether represented by the perverse parents in Dogtooth, the Kafkaesque state of The Lobster, or the ruling class of The Favourite. Punished for succumbing to human flaws like jealousy, vengeance, and overweening ambition, his characters, in seeking to question and defy the rules of the gods, find themselves trapped in a game as labyrinthine as those manicured gardens that decorate the palace grounds.Such patterned topiary visualizes the crisscrossing network of court life, as strollers navigate through this rabbit warren, lost in the maze. As Abigail states “My life is like a maze I continually think I have gotten out of, only to find another corner right in front of me.” Despite its handsome historical setting, with the splendor and richness of dark wood surfaces decorated in gilt leaf tapestry and swatches of fabric strung up as though they were wallpaper, The Favourite too suggests ancient myth and an awful, ironic, all-encompassing fate for its characters, evoking the earlier Greek tragedies just as surely. While The Favourite largely confines itself to the intimate, domestic sphere, focusing on the English court of Queen Anne’s day and rarely venturing outside the palace gates. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s fish-eye 6mm lenses give events the distorted appearance of a curved mirror, like true looking glasses of an earlier time. His camera suggests the convex, bulging quality of a rounded globe, the spherical aberration rendering a forced perspective that imparts the film with a distinct visual style, its own unique frame for reality (“I’m often blindsided by the distorted situation at court.”).These sharply oblique angles, embossed by many circular pans, are appropriate for invective satire, especially given the film’s darker emotional shifts toward the end. Shot on location at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, Hampton Court Palace and The Bodleian Libraries’ 15th-century Divinity School at the University of Oxford, the stylized exaggeration is muted by the soft natural lighting and masterly use of chiaroscuro, which suggests Daumier when outside, and Rembrandt or one of the old Dutch masters when within.Lanthimos’ films routinely revolve around hapless people like Abigail and Sarah, who find themselves thrown into cutthroat competitions of one sort or another, healthy sport which soon spirals out of control, becoming very much a life or death struggle for survival. His very first feature for instance, My Best Friend (2001), was about a relationship that slowly soured into ugly competitiveness. Likewise his Greek follow-up Dogtooth, which brought the director to American attention for the first time courtesy of a Foreign Language Film nomination, took sibling rivalry to extremes in the way the children were perversely encouraged to compete for their sick parents’ approval. The seemingly close family in The Killing of a Sacred Deer was seen to slowly and insidiously turn on one another as well, in an effort to curry favor with the father, and stave off being selected as sacrificial victim. A free updating of the ancient Greek tale Iphigenia, to date The Killing of a Sacred Deer has been the director’s most direct reference to the primitive forces controlling human nature, making the gods’ inexorable demand for blood for blood sacrifice seem that much more arcane and horrifying as played out in contemporary terms.The Lobster, Lanthimos sweetest and most approachable film, unfolded along lines similar to The Golden Ass, or Metamorphoses, as characters were turned into an animal of their choosing if they failed to find a soul mate within a select time period. With their biological clocks ticking away, the unfortunate opponents were placed in a dead heat to mate for life or risk this dehumanizing fate worse than death.The Favorite brings this latent theme of competitive rivalry very much to the fore. In the aristocratic circles Sarah and Abigail inhabit, where losing favor means losing all, survival is dependent on one’s standing in court. Hence both women must vie for the queen’s favor, becoming her most intimate confidante if they stand any chance of defying their preordained fates. Having Anne’s ear places them in a unique position to petition for statutes that align with their own interests, garnering further influence and all the attendant privileges that a full purse can bestow.By becoming participants in the royal rat race, Abigail and Sarah are likewise reduced to bestial terms here, just as characters were in The Lobster. Following their initial introduction for instance, a clanging bellwether opens the contest Queen Anne’s court is wagering on, like the Olympians on high, as to which fowl among a gaggle of racing geese will emerge as victor. Literally sending us off to the races in this way primes us for the neck and neck competition to come, with each woman trapped in the game to win it, going for the gold.When Anne later restages a similar race in her bedroom, with actual lobsters this time (an inside joke for Lanthimos fans), the allusion to the two women she’ll set on one another for her own amusement is unmistakable. Abigail and Sarah will symbolically suffer the same sorry fate as their token animals in the end as well, winners and losers alike boiled alive in the communal court pot, regardless of how well they outstrip one another in the contests to come.With the influence of lobbyists waxing and waning on the whim of the capricious queen, a seemingly indispensable advisor may turn out to have just been the flavor of the month, leaving allegiances shifting whichever way the wind blows. As Harley remarks, “… favor is a breeze that shifts direction all the time.” Like the royal court, Anne’s collection of multi-colored hares likewise find themselves only able to curry her favor on certain days, her full affection showered upon them just once a year for their birthday, in remembrance of the dead heir after whom each was christened, and in whose absence they serve as living memorial.
With the exception of Sarah, everyone in Anne’s vicinity obsequiously flips on a dime, impulsively agreeing with the dictates of whomever may be in an enviable position of power at the moment, even if that means betraying their own principles. This bending branch philosophy of engagement is emblematic in the behavior of ductile and malleable Tory party leader Harley, portrayed by Nicholas Hoult as a throwback to the arch dry humorists of cinema past, such as George Sanders or Clifton Webb. When Sarah’s advisor Sidney Godolphin (James Smith) vehemently dismisses dilettante Abigail’s assessment of war maneuvers as ‘a sort of party’ for instance, the sneering Tory immediately concurs with the cockeyed comparison the instance the queen agrees with Abigail, to better toe the party line. This turncoat is willing to indulge in his own long game, attempting to wheedle himself back into the queen’s good graces in order to replace Godolphin as statesman in her cabinet. And toadying Harley (“a useful ally, but a dangerous enemy.”) is equally adept at being underhanded where it suits him. When Anne becomes piqued at Sarah following the ball for instance, spitefully threatening to go back on her promise to double the taxes on Harley’s landowning class, to his delight, he’s prepared to head her off at the pass when she reconsiders.Preempting Anne’s expected announcement to Parliament with a flattering show of gratitude, he instead places the assumption in everyone’s mind that the queen is about to do just the opposite of what she intends. Which makes it impossible for the indecisive Anne to either follow through with her intended decree or back down, resulting in vapors in the docks, and her toppling over in a faint for want of a better solution.With Abigail’s lack of title or position, Harley sees her as an easy target to conscript as co-conspirator, enlisting her services as his spy behind enemy lines by extending her an olive branch and advising “Anyway, think on it. No pressure,” when in fact he’ll keep ratcheting up his coercion techniques (“Veiled threats under the guise of civility.”) until she has no other choice but to oblige. Always hovering about in the shadows, Abigail accuses him of keeping her perpetually off balance, quite literally, such as when he spitefully pushes her down a rolling incline back into the filth she crawled out of, or emerges from the recesses to trip her when she exits a room, tray in hand. He believes keeping her upended in this way will leave her not knowing whether she’s coming or going, or where he’s going to pop up next.
Yet The Favourite’s politics are kept so vague that we clearly aren’t supposed to care about which party, Tory or Whig, is in power at any given time, or why. Viewers find themselves far less interested in the tepid affairs of state than the court intrigue revolving around the escalating games of one-upmanship between Abigail and Sarah, once they declare open war on one another. The far off conflict with France is of less interest than the more immediate and localized one raging within these castle walls, so clearly all the background noise is simply meant to be allegorical, emblematic of the warlike posturing between the women.This will be made plain when Sarah stands accused by Harley of wanting to coerce the French into suing for peace by breaking the backs of the gentry. Claiming landowners like himself are being unfairly pinched to pay for a foreign conflict while city merchants enrich themselves off it (“A treaty would save money and lives. A win for all Englishmen.”), Harley warns that if taxes are doubled war will be incited right here at home merely to fund the one abroad, unaware that an only slightly more ‘civilized’ war is already brewing between the queen’s favorites right under his very nose, making the comparison unmistakable.It will be this clash of wills between Abigail, enlisted by Harley to push for the Tories, and Sarah, who’s pulling for the Whigs, that will ultimately determine the course of history, and the fate of thousands of soldiers at the front. Meaning neither the civil war Harley threatens in the English provinces, nor the one raging abroad, could have any greater impact on England than the struggle for power between Sarah and Abigail. Their standoff is even depicted in the visual connotations of a literal duel, with Sarah in riding breeches and habit worthy of a shooting party literally turning her revolver on an unarmed Abigail and firing off a round.But where Sarah may be shooting blanks with this warning shot, when Abigail gets the upper hand after their animosity has escalated, her pistol draws real blood, the bird she bags splattering all over Sarah, indicating that their rivalry has become far more deadly now that the gloves have come off and claws are bared. As the women’s competition becomes progressively heated, the sound of shooting is even laid over seemingly placid scenes with pistols nowhere in sight.The rare film about the royal affairs of an English queen not named Elizabeth or Victoria, the fascination of The Favourite in the general absence of strong male leads lies in the way it redistributes standing questions of eminent political power between Abigail, Sarah and Queen Anne, the three intriguingly conceived characters at its core. Whereas women have historically been encouraged to compete with one another for the attentions of powerful men, what’s ironic here is that Abigail and Sarah are squabbling for the favors of another, more powerful woman.With the queen occupying the highest seat in the land, each desperately wants to be the apple of Anne’s eye. And given the film’s feminist forward concept, concerning a predominately female herstory in which minor male characters such as Harley, Abigail’s romantic interest Col. Samuel Mashem, Sarah’s husband Lord Marlborough and Godolphin are trivialized, a coterie of talented actresses are given free rein to play things to the hilt. They do some truly fine, nuanced work, with a focused intensity that brings these toweringly tragic, flawed figures to life, resulting in an embarrassment of theatrical riches.Yet despite the enlightened qualities Oscar-nominated scenarists Deborah Davis (who wrote her initial draft in 1998) and Tony McNamara (who freshened it up) have striven to endow the film with, it still seems debatable if these creatures’ backstabbing bitchiness seems any more socially advanced than it was in the days of Clare Booth Luce. The condescending cattiness is quite transparent at times, such as when Anne warns Sarah not to ‘scratch’ at Abigail while the women take the baths. Lanthimos expressed the desire to “show them as complex and wonderful and horrific as they are, like other human beings.”But The Favourite still makes the conscious choice to depict its leading ladies as plotting, designing women. They’re spiteful rivals dedicated to impeding one another’s upwardly mobile progress, but then the men here are depicted the same way, so … there’s that. Consequently, the script repackages the film as a dishy bit of gossipy fun, perhaps lifted directly from the personal diaries of Lady Marlborough herself, from which the writers appear to have drawn much material, along with their idle speculations, turning the court of Queen Anne into another All About Eve, or at least a Devil Wears Prada. As Harley attests to his own weakness “I love gossip. It’s a failing, I know.”
An original script rather than an adaptation, The Favourite still seeks to impart a greater sense of literary flavor by being sectioned into the chapters of a rambling novel, with each new heading embossed like an illuminated manuscript set in Old English type. Significantly when Sarah first makes her animosity toward Abigail known, she’s standing on the symbolic social ladder, tossing the cultural missives of class status at her, launching expensively bound book after book from the library shelves Abigail had earlier been using to educate herself, threatening “If you do not go, I will start kicking you and I will not stop,” just as that heartless woman did Colin Farrell’s brother in The Lobster.But rather than genuinely weighty, historical readings, the movie is closer in keeping to the satirical narration of those bawdy Restoration comedies Lanthimos has modeled it after. Despite English being a second language, evidently the director took an elocutionist’s delight in the art of conversation here, the type of parlay which only the aristocracy had either the inclination or education to indulge in during that interval in lettered society where the pen truly was mightier than the sword. In the hands of Davis and McNamara, who sharpened their nibs to a fine point, words have been weaponized, the dialogue elevated by the nimble precision of witty wordplay which imparts additional layers of meaning to everything articulated, including one-liners and retorts that cut through opponents with rapier precision. Such as Harley’s description of Mashem’s ardor for Abigail “He’s completely cunt-struck by you,” or Sarah’s liberal paraphrasing of the queen’s assessment of Harley as “a fop and a prat (who) smells like a 96-year-old French whore’s vajuju,” causing him to prickle all over with offense “Oh? Well, I really doubt you’re quoting.”Even the more common putdowns have a tendency to tickle us, as when Abigail claims she can’t get a tune out of her head and Sarah sympathizes “Well, there is so much room for it.” In this regard The Favourite brings to my mind the French film Ridicule (1997), in which fortunes and court reputations rested on the graceful art of one’s verbal thrusts and parries. With viper-tongued characters savagely throwing shade, The Favourite’s full of clever lines that are bitingly acerbic to the ear, providing viewers the rare privilege of listening to a fiercely intelligent screenplay chalk full of droll bon mots.With its satirical tone, The Favourite further suggests other picaresque novels of the time, like Moll Flanders and Vanity Fair. Without such a literary heritage, how else could the film get away with such Rabelaisian lines regarding the uncouth behavior of common yeoman as “They sh*t in the streets around here; political commentary they call it.” Given the concupiscent amounts of food and sex on display, there seems the lingering spirit of Tom Jones about The Favourite, and the litany of ribald, corset-ripping softcore knockoffs the classic 1963 movie inspired.In a world without Fanny Hill, whose lusty, social climbing heroine Abigail shares her surname with, there would seem no excuse for such lewd scenes as the one of that soldier of her majesty’s service disgracing his redcoat uniform by rudely wanking right in front of her, oblivious to the presence of those around him in that crowded carriage. Or the subsequent scene where an enthusiastically obedient footman throws Abigail over the kitchen table at Lady Sarah’s behest.
Ripping open her bodice in preparation for a thrashing, the taken aback cook assumes the worst, demanding they take their apparent roll in the hay out to the barn, where such animal passions belong. Lanthimos’ short Uranisco Disco (2002) concerned an attempt to make a porn musical, and none of his subsequent films have shied away from sexual explicitness, The Favourite being no exception.There seems something downright prurient in the very premise, with the farm fresh country cousin up from the provinces sightseeing bent, overripe for corruption by the wicked, worldly-wise wolves lying in wait. The movie comes off as a bawdy comedy at times, but evident beneath its jolly, rambunctious tone, is something inherently misanthropic and sadistic in its pernicious world view of mercenary predation. It suggests such sexually nihilistic, anti-erotic works as Justine, wherein dishonesty and depravity are rewarded, while no instance of virtue or goodness goes unpunished (“So, you are perhaps too kind for your own good… which leads to stupidity.”).As in the doctrines of de Sade, one’s virtue can’t be prized too highly in an inherently immoral world where sex is just another currency used to acquire power and position. This becomes apparent in such scenes as when Abigail, weighing her present prospects, proves perfectly willing to negotiate a compromise with her own morality, henceforth vowing “to act in a way that meets with the edges of my morality,” realizing that if she’s bounced out of court for being principled and playing fair, she’ll “end up on the street selling my a**hole to syphilitic soldiers, (where) steadfast morality will be a f*cking nonsense that will mock me daily.”Perhaps reminded of Stephen Frears’ classic Dangerous Liaisons by the Glenn Close renaissance this year, The Favourite proffers a cynical aristocratic circle engaged in erotic games that can be equated with other forms of nefarious court intrigue. Lanthimos seems to want to suggest that it’s sex that determines the course of history, but what he’s depicting here is instead a perversely playful form of sexual sadism, where love is inextricably entwined with pain as much as pleasure. Or to be more precise, the characters, same as the ancient gods that manipulate them, only seem capable of deriving pleasure by inflicting pain and humiliation upon one another, intentional or otherwise.According to writer McNamara, The Favourite is “about how love can be perverted and deformed.” So when Abigail massages Anne’s lame leg for instance, and her wandering hand ventures upward, driving the queen to cries of ecstasy, she moans out “Oh, the pain!” when what she really means to say is that the sensation is giving her untold pleasure. Lanthimos’ film is fascinated with further exploring the intersection of these dual concepts. Applying the recurring gesture frequently seen in the director’s movies, the lame queen even licks Sarah’s hand before she hops into her lap, just as Alicia Silverstone did Colin Farrell’s in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and the daughter did her brother’s nighttime visitor in Dogtooth, implying utter sexual subservience.
Though everyone expected the Best Actress award to go to Close, it was Olivia Colman who upset the Oscar applecart, so apparently voters took her infantile Queen Anne to heart. But then the Academy has always been partial to English actors impersonating British royalty. And it didn’t hurt that Colman had already won the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival for this part, and received much free publicity as a British television mainstay over the years in miniseries like Broadchurch and TV shows like Fleabag, even signing on to play the elder version of Elizabeth II on Netflix’s The Crown.In truth, Colman’s ersatz performance, full of over the top outbursts is the primary source of absurdist humor here (Hoult is quite funny too). Possessing no composure or self-control the queen frequently makes herself ridiculous, to the point where at times we might be watching a slapstick comedy. Having been close friends for the majority of their lives, Sarah feels comfortable assuring Anne that she’s “such a child” and she’ll visually resemble one when being rolled about in her wheelchair as if she were an oversized baby in a pram. At times she’ll want to be pushed fast like a reckless tot on a tricycle, at others she recalls Miss. Haversham from Great Expectations, disconnected from reality and living in her tragic past, wicking candle raised high to light the way back.Whining like an infant when hurled to the ground, in truth Anne, with her vindictive piques and temper tantrums seems the great, petulant child Sarah accuses her of being, one who doesn’t know its own power or what destruction can be wrought with the single sweep of a pen to issue a royal sentence. When she looks at herself in a little handheld mirror, she might be Nero peering through his lorgnette, about to throw some more Christians to the lions without a second thought. The preponderance of white hares hopping about invoking the comparison, Anne isn’t far removed from the howling, nonsensical mad queen from Alice in Wonderland, repeatedly issuing the order “Off with their heads!” like another Henry VIII eliminating his latest wife. Her Anne seems only half-formed though, just a few degrees removed from those imbecilic sovereigns who’s genetic line had become so decimated through generations of incestuous intermarriage, they retained the mind of a child but were placed on thrones despite being unfit for office, just to ensure that succession remained in the royal line. To some with good memories, Colman might even bring to mind Kathy Burke’s berserk Bloody Mary in the Cate Blanchette Elizabeth, who mistook her abdominal tumor for a longed for child. Certainly Anne nurses that litter of rabbits that mock her with their multiplicity with more maternal feeling than she does her own subjects, claiming that “(with) each one that dies, a little bit of you goes with them.” Which may explain why, after having lost seventeen children over the course of her lifetime, little of substance seems to remain of Anne herself, as she roams the spiraling halls of her palace, lost down the corridors of her own mind, snatching suckling infants out of their wet nurses arms reminded of her own lost wee ones. Though occupying the highest seat in the land, she still feels awkward, oversized and out of place, a fact which becomes apparent when she shrieks at a pageboy not to look at her after applying unseemly eye makeup, believing she’s too unsightly even for his tender eyes.A child is the only person the queen is not too intimidated to bully (she’ll later warn the unfortunate little fellow not to lean in at her either, as she sifts through her mail), because she is still much a child herself, the same frightened little girl she was when Sarah first came to her rescue from a bully in her youth, remaining her heroic savior and protector ever since. Even after all this time the queen cowers behind her dress skirts, while Sarah continues to do all the heavy lifting. This description of their first encounter indicates to us that Sarah, who projects an iron maiden exterior, has always held the upper hand in their relationship. Despite being subject to Anne’s sovereignty, she’s kept the queen an emotionally arrested captive, entirely dependent upon her. In many movies about the private lives of monarchs, a power struggle emerges between the enthroned queen as head of state, and her prince consort, who is made to feel emasculated by this reversal of traditional gender roles, taking umbrage at being forced into a position of secondary importance in relation to the ‘weaker sex.’ Taking us behind palace doors and into those dark, Freudian passages connecting Anne’s chamber with Sarah’s, their relationship initially strikes viewers like the domestic squabbles of an old married couple.Stuck indoors all day, bedbound with gout and feeling ignored, sulking Anne acts out to get Sarah’s attention, threatening to jump out the window – the royal equivalent of holding your breathe until your face turns blue. Duplicitously maintaining her perilous position until she’s certain Sarah has entered the room, Anne’s clearly hollow threat goads the nonplussed witness to advise her to aim for the flagstones so there’s no lingering pain, as the equally weepy Biscuit Woman did in The Lobster. Unable to understand why Sarah must brush her aside in order to attend to more pressing matters, Anne devises these ploys and manufactured crises specifically to pull her away from official duties.She sounds like the taken for granted wife of a workaholic husband when she begs Sarah, who’s all business, to “Stay a while. No! Take the day off. I command it,” leaving her rebuffed by her bustling mistress as she saunters off to continue performing all the queenly duties Anne herself is too ill-equipped to, with the riposte “Someone must run things.” Sarah, who’s depicted like a figure of horror at times, as she looms over Anne, stands suspect in our eyes initially for treating the queen so contemptuously and usurping her official role by dictating policy of state. The way she longingly observes Anne divested of her royal raiment makes it seem as though she covets the throne as much as Abigail yearns to assume Sarah’s own position at court, closely studying her from the sidelines in the same way. Yet it becomes clear that the spoiled, tyrannical Anne is in no position to govern a kingdom she inherited by title, rather than by political skill or savvy. Heavy lies the head that wears the crown and when Queen Anne’s ladies-in-waiting remove her jewel encrusted tiara and sable ermine train following a royal engagement, it’s like a weight off her shoulders, as she cranes her neck with relief. As we come to know the woman behind the crown, we see that clearly she is not a figure born to govern. Instead the uninformed Anne, who’s as oblivious of her country’s political and economic strife as she is ignorant of foreign affairs, knows nothing of the war she’s supposed to be waging with France, believing it to have been won following a single battle, a misconception that must be corrected by Sarah, who schools her in her own policies, making it apparent to us that they’re really her edicts, rather than those of the queen herself.In this curious relationship, it’s Lady Marlborough, with her strident demeanor, who has assumed the dominant ‘male’ role as prince consort, virtually serving as Anne’s co-regent. Sarah frequently coifs herself in masculine-looking attire to claim a measure of sexual parity in patriarchal society, inducing men to view her as one of their own, smoothing the way for her to interact on equal footing in world affairs.When she’s left a battle scarred veteran of the sex wars, from which no one emerges unscathed here, her eye covered by a pirate’s patch that leaves her looking like Horatio Nelson (in whose honor Godolphin’s racing duck was named), she’ll even claim that if she were a man, her wounds would be considered quite dashing rather than marring her features, proving a handicap in her ability to compete with Abigail, since the queen no longer finds her as fair.There’s no doubt that Sarah, drawing a power claiming mud mustache on her face when they take to the baths, wears the pants in this relationship. Swaggering about in her riding jodhpurs while threateningly waving her crop about, when she bustles the queen into a saddle-like corset, cinching her in leather straps like a horse in harness, so she can sit astride her mount without toppling over, we seem to have strayed into a female variation of Fifty Shades. Expanding the equine allusions even further, Harley will later ask Masham if he intends on riding Abigail, as if off to the English derby.Sarah, wanting to make it plain to everyone, herself included, that she’s the real power behind the throne, grabs the queen by her throat and crotch, or throws her bodily to the floor, raising her hand against her sovereign in a manner that would warrant immediate execution under normal circumstances. Yet Anne seems to revel in the rough stuff. Even when there’s no one else present to batter her about, she’s abusing her own body by eating herself into a sugar coma. Occasionally she attempts to assert herself, telling Sarah “Do not shout at me! I am the queen!” only to promptly be put in her place, shriveling as her subject shouts “Then for once, act like one!” She seems as big a booby as Robert Morley’s Louis XVI in Marie Antoinette, getting her jollies by being bossed and bullied about by Sarah, humiliated in the same way Prince George IV was, foolishly failing to see how he was being publicly demeaned by deferring to the tastes of the far more dapper Beau Brummel. Her ministers would run roughshod over poor, unassertive Anne without implacable Sarah there to serve as bulwark. Given their old acquaintance, they address each other by affectionate nicknames, Sarah calling her “Mrs. Morley,” while drawing an all-seeing monocle on her face, while Anne counters with “Mrs. Freeman.”It’s by presuming upon this intimacy that Sarah will routinely take upon herself Anne’s rightful duties as queen, ostensibly so tremulous, uncertain Anne won’t be burdened by being put through the awkward ordeal.She seems so thoroughly under Sarah’s sway that when Harley squirrels away a minute alone with Anne to advance his own concerns, it’s with the pointed request “All I ask is that you search your heart. Not Lady Marlborough’s heart, your own.”Anointing herself head of state in Anne’s stead, Sarah secretly revels in her by-proxy-powers, allowing them to go to her head as she effectively shadow manages the English throne. Waiting for an audience, when Harley and Godolphin ask where their absent sire is, and Sarah asserts that she is present in the form of her own glorious person, she has to be reminded that she only speaks for Anne (“Might I remind you you’re not the queen?”), and that no real divine rights have ever been conferred upon her.Consequently, when Sarah forthrightly tells the queen she resembles a badger, ordering her to return to her rooms, we can’t tell whether she’s exercising tough love by being brutally honest, or preying on Anne’s insecurities so she can take the diplomatic meeting with the ambassador’s delegation herself. Same as we can’t be sure if she seems so eager to send her husband off to the front out of some misguided sense of patriotism or to make it more convenient for the women to spend some quality time together.Yet Sarah is alone among the queen’s retinue in fully grasping how to best handle the basket case, talking her down off the ledge, keeping her in check psychologically and emotionally, and out of her own way so she doesn’t make a fool of herself before Parliament. Sarah repeatedly runs interference so that Anne can remain for all intents and purposes, able to discharge her duties of office. She’s the only person at court to stand firm and tell it like it is, believing in shooting straight from the hip and speaking truth to power (“Sometimes, you look like a badger. And you can rely on me to tell you.”).Sarah never sugarcoats her words, expecting the queen to live up to the power invested in her and abide by her oath of office. Baked into the character’s conception are elements of King Lear, in which daughter Cordelia’s love is proven pure by the fact that she will not lower herself to showering her father with false blandishments, as Sarah is loath to lie to the queen in order to stroke her ego. Whereas Lear’s more deceitful daughters, like Abigail, have no compunction agreeably flattering him to advance themselves, saying just what he wants to hear in order to be looked on with favor.When Anne frets that someone in court had called her fat and ugly, for instance, Sarah attempts to reassure her “No one but me would dare, and I did not.” As she avers once locked outside the queen’s bedchamber, the golden key to her private quarters having been rescinded and the iron door closed on her forever, only Sarah can be depended upon to speak the absolute, unvarnished truth when it matters (“You wish me to lie to you?… I will not lie! That is love!”). The petulant Anne requires Sarah’s firm hand to guide her and prevent her from succumbing to her sins of self-indulgence, saving her from her worst impulses. For instance, Sarah warns Abigail not to serve Anne hot chocolate despite the queen commanding it, knowing it doesn’t agree with her, leaving the serving wench uncertain whose orders to heed. No man can serve two masters, so Sarah gives in, allowing the queen to have her way, as she will for a time with Abigail herself, trusting she’ll get her fill and sicken on the sweet stuff, contritely crawling back to admit she was wrong and that Sarah knew what was best all along.Wanting to give the queen too much of a good thing, it’s Sarah who initially throws Anne and Abigail together, playing right into her cousin’s hands, underestimating her capabilities. Trying to stoke Anne’s desires, make her eagerly await her visits by claiming she’s indisposed (which is why when Sarah later disappears, Anne initially assumes “She may be doing this to hurt me, make me dissolve and dissemble,” proving she’s incapable of running things on her own), Sarah compares herself to a tasty morsel, asserting “I am not food. You cannot just eat and eat.” To which the ravenous queen objects “Yet you are tasty and salty. If I grilled you, you’d make a delightful meal.” Sarah will likewise draw Abigail in a similar light when she asks Mashem if he’d “like a bite of my new maid before you leave?” Abigail becomes just one more sweet for the queen to stuff herself sick with, consuming this comely confection that proves every bit as fatal to her constitution as those dainty delicacies that disagreed with her earlier. Recognizing her cousin for what she is, the perceptive Sarah reassures the queen that mud baths remove all the poisons and toxins from the body, just as Anne will appear to get Abigail out of her system for a time, returning to court resting her head on Sarah’s shoulder.Yet Anne, who’s always been totally reliant on Sarah before, feels very daring flaunting her requests to put an end to the affair and send Abigail away from court. It’s the only order from Sarah she’s ever dared defy, her fresh new relationship giving her an unexpected measure of freedom and confidence. How proud Anne is, for instance, when she proves to Sarah she did well maneuvering the war divisions in her absence, making her feel as if she were no longer needed. With what force and command she addresses Parliament at the end, when she’d been so tremulous at the beginning. And it’s actually Abigail, despite her ulterior motives and desire to drive a wedge between Anne and Sarah, who helps the queen acknowledge the emotionally stifling co-dependence on her longtime companion.Despite Anne’s belief that she can’t subsist without Sarah, claiming “She’s saved me my whole life,” and conviction that “without her, I’m nothing,” Abigail reassures her, “That is not true. You are the queen.” Where Sarah has a vested interest in keeping the impaired queen dependent upon her, Abigail has a clear motive in freeing her of Sarah’s influence, so that she can instead be taken into the queen’s confidence herself. By removing Sarah from the picture for a time, giving Anne the confidence that she needn’t be so needy, Abigail actually helps her find the strength to stand on her own two feet for the first time, rising from wheelchair, to walking stick to her own wobbly legs, even learning to dance. Just as we’d seen the miserable queen flat on her back when Sarah pulled her out of the window earlier, when we subsequently see her in an identical pose, it’s from toppling over breathless, having learned a minuet.Like Brenda Blethyn with her resentful daughter in Secrets and Lies, Anne goes out of her way to make Sarah envious when she deigns to set aside time for her now, claiming that she is otherwise occupied, rather than still desperate for her attention as before. Accusing Anne of sending for her cousin just to make her jealous, Sarah is unwilling to entertain the possibility that Anne could enjoy Abigail’s company more than her own. Initially sympathetic to her poor relation’s plight, commiserating, “you have fallen far,” and affording her the opportunity to restore her damaged reputation, Sarah begins to suspect, not incorrectly, that she’s instead being used as a stepping stone in Abigail’s rise to power (“I think you are a pretty little liar that I have misjudged… a disloyal little b*tch.”).Seeing her cousin’s growing influence as a direct threat, when the queen sends for Abigail now, Sarah chooses to show up in her place, as she was once wont to do during royal occasions, in place of the queen. But the dynamic between Anne and Sarah is seen to have subtly shifted. Now when Sarah tries to manipulate her and push her around, Anne becomes increasingly self-assertive, repeating Abigail’s self-affirmation “I am the queen. Do not try to do that thing you do.” And when Anne takes her leave of Sarah, her last words have a familiar ring, pronouncing “I have my duties to attend to.”For despite her authoritative demeanor, Sarah only seems to be in the driver’s seat up to the certain point the queen allows, until spiteful jealousy rears its head, causing her to put her subject in her place with a stark rebuke. As she does by slapping Sarah, hard, across the face after she flaunts herself at the ball by daring to dance (with a man) in front of the wheelchair-bound queen, knowing her to be immobilized and unable to take part. Following this falling out and a similar outburst at the sounds of music issuing from the court musicians, Abigail finds it the perfect opportunity to insinuate herself into the queen’s good graces by specifically offering to dance with her (“I think it would be cheery”), plying the queen with honeyed words when she’s sent to keep her company in Sarah’s stead.But while at varying times both Abigail and Sarah appear to have the upper hand, it’s Anne herself who ultimately proves to hold all the power, to have been pulling the strings all along. She willfully encourages the competition between the two women to buoy her own ego, becoming flush watching them fighting over her. As Sarah observes “You are enjoying all of this, aren’t you?” And indeed Anne begins using both as pawns in her sadomasochistic love games, exploiting Abigail’s class resentments and showing Sarah how easily she can be replaced on a whim, despite the hold she flatters herself she exerts over the throne. It’s the queen here, one of the minor deities, who is invested with the divine rites director Lanthimos usually bestows upon his other pagan forces of nature. Proving the all-seeing hand of fate, her demi-god maneuvers her subjects about like pieces on a chess board, playing one against the other for blood sport.The rampant sadism ruling court life is apparent from that debasing scene of the naked fool being pelted with rotten tomatoes, tossed at him as though he were an unsuccessful actor before a disapproving opening night crowd. The paint ball splatters on the folding screen behind him resemble blood stains, as if someone had been lined up and executed by firing squad, recalling the shooting practice scenes from earlier. Delectably captured in slow-motion, same as that absurd earlier duck race had been, it further indicates how the aristocracy wastes far too much expendable time, money and misguided energy in this fashion. But the scene is used to make a further thematic point as well.Intercutting the event with Sarah’s drugging and descent into the sort of selfsame straits Abigail’s just recently emerged from, makes clear that this allegorical ‘jest’ is really being perpetrated at her expense, that she’s the fool, by inference, being made mockery of. Abigail is deriving perverse pleasure from visiting pain and humiliation upon her rival, reveling in her debasement. During Sarah’s whorehouse interlude, she’s likewise threatened with having her virtue sold on the open market if she can’t cough up ransom.Proving that the lower classes are no better than their betters, who set such low standards in terms of moral behavior rather than leading by example. The other scullery maids subject Abigail to an assortment of sadistic hazings as well, leading her directly to the drawing room where Sarah is playing billiards with company, under the pretense that they‘re taking her to get cleaned up, or getting a cruel chuckle by letting her burn her hand raw with lye, remaining mum that she might need protective gloves when scouring the stone floor.Despite their superficial surface similarities, comparison of The Favourite to Dangerous Liaisons must by necessity ignore the main theme of that earlier film, in which wagering French aristocrats engaged in amatory games for dominance in the eternal battle of the sexes. Removing men from the equation by focusing on women instead fundamentally changes the way sex is used (and misused) in The Favourite. There aren’t any representative chaps here that come close to touching the women in their circle, all of whom prove far deadlier than the male. Instead, the brains of these horny, overgrown adolescents are kept perennially clouded by the possible prospect of conjugal bliss, leaving them singularly incapable of competing at a commensurate level in the art of one-upmanship Abigail and Sarah have mastered.Outclassed in this fashion, the men in the film fade into insignificance. They’re there to manipulate, serve as sexual playthings, or marriage prospects, basically fulfilling the same thankless sort of function that women traditionally have in films about the royal affairs of men. Indeed, men such as Harley are specifically being driven up the wall by the fact that political power has been usurped by the fair sex, leaving him and his disenfranchised fellows facing the prospect of being ruled by a flock of females, an affront to their masculine pride (“This is a disgusting distortion of the system. You have no place in this.”).Aware of this, Sarah purposely diddles with the flouncy, fussy Harley, who humorously reacts like a flustered goose whenever his feathers are ruffled, by telling him his mascara is running, or further rubs salt in the wound by informing him he’ll have to recompense the crown for the side table he flips over in an impotent rage. Drawing himself to his full height in an attempt to cow the diminutive Sarah into submission, he instead finds she can’t be physically intimidated by his imposing frame and won’t back down, even when cautioned by her older, wiser confidante Godolphin that “a man’s dignity is the one thing that holds him back from running amok.”While empowered females control the affairs of state under Queen Anne, powdered, bewigged and bejeweled men, sporting fancy beauty marks like the one of a British Lion decorating Harley’s cheek, are committed to making themselves appear as physically prepossessing as possible to manipulate things to their own ends. The Whig party itself seems to have taken its name from the glorious helmets of cascading periwigs men wear like lion manes, carrying their own picture frames around their faces. Harley’s is the most impressive, with him looking as if he were hosting a powdered down pillow on his head. He could sink back into that fuzzy mass to catch forty winks at any moment.Knowing nothing of women, it’s the sexually indeterminate Harley who assures Masham that he must dress to impress after the curious fashion of the day, telling him that men must look pretty for their maids, rather than vice versa. Reduced to using sex as their weapon of choice, they resort to the same sort of sexual wiles more traditionally associated with the fair sex in order to get their way. Masham (played by poor Joe Awyer, who was just about everywhere this year, though Boy Erased and Operation Finale advanced his career no further than The Favourite did) prepares for his midnight rendezvous with Abigail by tarting himself up with more powder and paint than she wears herself.But Mashem isn’t entirely sure Abigail approves of him getting all gussied up in this dandified fashion, being put off by all the fuss and feathers in which he comes a courting like a peacock (“What an outfit!”). Instead Abigail is intrigued by what Masham looks like beneath the grease paint. As with Dangerous Liaisons, the court wears its makeup as if it were a tribal war mask, Lanthimos refining the idea by conceiving these false faces much like those impassive Greek masks for tragedy and comedy that were utilized in the ancient amphitheater to embody different roles and expressions. In their clown makeups these lords and ladies, knights and knaves appear harlequin jesters and fools going through their perfunctory japes with little enjoyment, as in those amusing, ritualistically stylized dance movements dreamed up by choreographer Constanza Macras for the court ball. Mashem and the like put on these distracting disguises to hide their real selves, concealing their true designs and intentions beneath. So when Abigail rubs off the rouge and pancake powder as if molding playdough, all that’s left is a weak, creamy center that’s practically putty in her hand. She even pulls Mashem up to crotch level at one point, the same servile position we’ll see Abigail herself occupying in relation to Anne at the end.There’s a persistent sadomasochistic spirit in Mashem’s courtship of Abigail that’s not so far removed from the subordinated relationship between Sarah and Anne themselves, vague threats delivered under the veil of flirtation. When he comes across Abigail in the palace, his love verses run along the lines of having her “stripped and whipped” as she’d nearly been under Sarah’s orders earlier, his words sounding like perverse titillation to both their ears. This is not your typical boy meets girl.During their bizarre rendezvous in the forest glen, for instance, her swain’s idea of romantic overture is to stalk up from behind while she’s quietly reading, and suddenly start shrieking like a mad man to quicken her blood. Having gotten her heart thumping in her tightly cinched bustier, Mashem ends up chasing Abigail over hill and dale, as if he were a hunting party and she the prey, tackling, tripping, biting, kicking. Their tussle appears quite bruising, as they grapple to gain the upper hand like animals establishing dominance. When Anne later asks Abigail how her dress was torn, she claims it was at the hands of wolves, with her lack of specificity as to species proving an apt summation.But subsequent events cause us to question who the big bad wolf really is in this regard. While Abigail’s lowly position among the help makes Mashem’s advances appear inappropriate (“I cannot marry a servant. I can enjoy one, though.”), she proves not just his full match, but ends up beating him at his own game, delivering a swift knee to the groin with a coquettish giggle at the very moment he believes he has conquered. And when Abigail wins Mashem’s name and title through marriage, she seems to be in as domineering a position over him as Sarah initially is over Anne. With Abigail chasing Masham until he catches her, we can see long before the queen sanctifies their betrothal that they are the perfect couple (“Don’t you think we’re a good match?” – “I think a very good match.”) because he’s no more a gentleman than she is a lady, both being equally perverse in matters concerning sex. When Masham appears at Abigail’s bedchamber at night, with a lecherous leer, for instance she asks if he’s intent on seduction or rape, and his response, that he’s a gentleman, seems to settle the matter for her – “So rape, then.” Just as Harley seeks out Abigail‘s help to do his nefarious bidding, Abigail takes a shine to lunkhead Masham specifically because she recognizes they are birds of a feather.Utterly uncomprehending, he’s the ideal sounding board for her spiraling schemes. Having successfully strung him along by his codpiece all this time, a detached Abigail only goes so far as frigging him on their wedding night, using the same hand she’d burned with lye when applying it to similarly menial tasks earlier. Meanwhile her thoughts are elsewhere, wondering from what angle Sarah may swoop in to strike, unraveling the plots she’s hatching to ensure her economic security. In her ruthless climb to the top, compelled by demons of poverty, hunger and disease, the immoral, spiritually corrupt Abigail’s not unlike Richard III, using every cunning trick and committing every abomination imaginable to advance her station in life, rising all the way into the rarified air of the royal bedchamber without having any idea of what good it will do her once safely ensconced there.Despite Mashem’s attempt to frighten her in the woods, the only thing that truly scares Abigail is the possibility of slipping back into a life of destitution if Sarah makes good her threat to throw her back out on the streets. Trailing behind the gossiping, giggling intimates upon their return from the baths, Abigail once again finds herself left on the outside covetously looking in, back at square one with all the advances made to this point summarily erased. Having been ignominiously lost by her father in a card game and sold into prostitution, the movie keeps us constantly apprised of what sorrowful fate Abigail might easily slip back into as she watches Sarah expertly reeling Anne back in. Harley likewise warns that she could be “back sleeping with a bunch of scabrous whores wondering whose finger’s in you’re a**,” a scenario she’s all too familiar with. We gather what unseemly state Abigail is trying to drag herself out of when a rude pinch on the bottom leaves her flailing face first in a mud hole after disembarking from that traveling carriage upon her arrival at court. But her prospects hardly seem to have improved within the palace walls since the muck and mire she’s attempting to escape appears just as prevalent in her posh new surroundings. The royal entourage douse themselves in similar mud baths at the mineral springs, sinking themselves up to the shoulders, the unseemly sight inspiring a wary Abigail to likewise keep fighting dirty lest she “fall asleep and slip under,” regressing back to her sorrowful former state.As Abigail related of her earlier fall from grace, “all the rapes were the hardest,” making her feel as though she were nothing, much as Anne feels herself to be in the absence of Sarah’s supportive presence. So it’s not surprising that Abigail would see the sexual act not as a physical expression of love, as Sarah does, but as a means to an end, a way to exert her will over other people, even her betters like Mashem, until she has them unwittingly doing her bidding. Having been thrown on her own devices by a cruel and uncaring world, the way she uses sex as a means of manipulation (“Perhaps because of my past, perhaps a malformation of my heart.”) seems in keeping with the times. Tellingly, once the material reward she’s seeking has been secured, Abigail loses all interest in lovemaking. Though she assures Anne her feelings for Mashem are “Not the way I care for you,” the fact that she finds him a turn off when he’s all made up, rather than more alluring in the accoutrements associated with the opposite sex for example, confirms that her Sapphic overtures to Anne have nothing to do with legitimate attraction, her fluid sexuality simply a means to an end. As Sarah warns “She does not love you.” Having already paid the highest sexual price by placing her virginity on the auction block to stave off her father’s financial ruin, Abigail believes she deserves some compensation from the crown for her sacrifice.Advocating her cause, Abigail claims she wasn’t always working class (“Well, I’m still the lady I was, in my heart”), that she was well-educated before her family fell on hard times, that she can sketch, speak Latin and French, read and dance all the latest waltzes. But while she declares that “Even if I were the last one left in this wretched place, I would remain a lady,” it’s Harley who settles her delirious hash, “So, you once were a lady, and now you are nothing. A bit of scullery scraps. How very sad.”And Abigail’s subsequent actions, totally lacking in scruples, demonstrably disprove her assertion “I am a person of honor, even if my station is not.” For all her fine claims about wanting to be a grand lady, in the final assessment Abigail proves herself a whore for good and all, willing to do anything, resort to any high crime or the most common misdemeanor, to ensure a favorable outcome for herself. Turns out Sarah had aptly apprised her cousin upon their initial meeting after all, when she derisively sniffed “didn’t know the new sewer ended in here.”Similar stories about vicious little grasping upstarts who claw and climb their way through high society have become familiar onscreen, so when Sarah makes a spectacle of herself upon her return to court by striding into the concert hall during a command performance to confront Abigail, viewers might be reminded of the similarly staged scene in Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick’s own version of this oft-told tale about a social climber in aristocratic circles. As Sarah wryly remarks, “The servant is dressed in the clothes of a lady. How… whimsical.”But truth be told, while we’re sitting there watching Abigail’s shameless rise from dosshouse whore to the queen’s bedchamber, we aren’t sure whether were supposed to admire her gumption, in the interest of crawling her way back into respectability, the way we do such picaresque precedents as Moll Flanders or Becky Sharp, or judgmentally look down on the way she throws about her sex in such a crass, vulgar way. The arch, anglophile spelling of the film’s title is enough to give one pause.Abigail in theory might be anticipating those angry young Cockneys who populated British cinema in the ‘60s, railing against the rigged class system, while demanding to know what happened to their own slice of the pie. Despite having no vested interest in the outcome, Lanthimos might be restaging the American Revolution all over again, back in the British Isles this time, with the brassy, uncouth American insolence of egg yolk-eyed Emma Stone placed as crass counterpoint to the tony, cultured, tart-tongued British repose of well-bred Rachel Weisz.The yawning vicissitudes of English life in the immediate pre-Georgian period could have been made no more apparent than in the economic iniquities established between these cousins, whose stratified social statuses are compared and contrasted, one ruthlessly attempting to ascend by hook or by crook, while the other desperately attempts to hold onto her imperiled position by any means necessary.The women’s parallel state of affairs is emphasized throughout, one experiencing the best of times, the other the worst, with Sarah’s palatial existence upstairs contrasted with Abigail’s life down below, sleeping ten to a room with the rest of the kitchen staff. Having arrived at the castle with high hopes, wide-eyed Abigail literally has cold water thrown on her dashed dreams when a mop bucket is flung in her face as she communally showers with the other scullions.A direct parallel is established between Sarah and Abigail through editing, as if the two were twins connected by an invisible umbilical cord. Moreover the lye that burns Abigail’s hand is equated by editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis’ intercutting with the gout that subsequently plagues the queen, bonding the two through the homeopathic ointment both find soothing relief in, an unguent concocted out of herbs Abigail gathers witch-like, in the woods at cockcrow, unaware that the mounted Mashem has espied her from the tree line, as the Headless Horseman did Miranda Richardson in Sleepy Hollow.
During Anne’s first bout with gout Lanthimos uses montage to blur the images of the three women , transposing them one atop the other and occasionally merging them together as Sarah and Abigail hover about the queen, precisely as he will overlay the rabbits at the end, further suggesting the painful ties of psychological agony and emotional anguish that binds all three. Similarly, Sarah will later be intercut with the agonized queen when she too is laid low, her relative position to Abigail having been reversed, Sarah finding herself prostrate in a whorehouse as alcohol is poured on her cheek to sanitize an open gash, symbolically attempting to stem the festering infection Abigail is spreading among them. There’s supreme irony in having the sheltered Sarah descend among the same dregs of society Abigail is seeking to rise above. Since her haughty response to Anne’s earlier suggestion to canvass villagers to determine the popularity of their proposed land tax (“People are led. They do not lead.”), told us she was as out of touch as the rest of the aristocracy with the very populace she’s helping govern. Bringing her into such close, personal proximity with commoners, following her drugging, forces Sarah to ascertain for the first time how the other half lives. Drug down into the same cesspool Abigail had only recently crawled out of, sinking into the selfsame squalor, filth and mud subsisting just outside the palace gates, Sarah’s fall makes her contrasting situation with her cousin stand out all the more starkly.The women’s relative positions to one another are reversed entirely, with Sarah experiencing firsthand the ‘hell’ Abigail has only recently escaped, while her cousin assumes her previous, privileged place at court, and our sympathies similarly switch along with them. The film starts out manipulating audiences into siding with the underdog in an insecure, vulnerable, buffeted-by-fate Abigail, thwarted at every turn in her effort to secure a steady livelihood, while we are inclined to dislike the cool, collected, arrogant Sarah who appears to want to keep her cousin down, by keeping her foot on her neck, rather than allowing her the opportunity to circulate among her betters. So we can’t begrudge Abigail’s first, flush attempts to ensure credit is given where due by making it clear to the queen where the ointment for her gout came from. The initial round of barrages in their class war have us intuitively rooting for Abigail in this way, but as the tables slowly begin to turn, with Sarah losing her influence at court as well as her hold over the queen, our sympathies tend to shift toward her, as we see everything she holds dear slipping through her fingers due to Abigail’s underhanded influence. But since it was Sarah who gave Abigail the run of the palace, throwing her and Anne together to begin with, a large measure of her cousin’s subsequent success can be laid at Sarah’s own feet. Observing of Abigail “You are of a sweet disposition and have suffered blows so desire safety and favor above all else,” Sarah candidly admits “I have a thing for the weak,” which explains her soft spot for the queen as well. But her philanthropic interest in Abigail will come back to bite her (appearances aside, she’s not the weak sort). Promising “I will make a killer of you yet,” Sarah injudiciously takes Abigail under her wing believing she can be trusted, while her cousin bides her time, assessing all the angles and playing “both sides of the street.”Notice how innocent bystander Abigail slowly drinks in Sarah’s advice to her husband when sending him off to the front, applying the words to her own situation – “You must be safe. You must not be foolish and brave. Be smart and safe, I beg you.” Abigail proves far too quick a study and Sarah far too good a mentor, so it’s not long before the student has surpassed the master. With her street smarts, Abigail quickly takes her cousin’s place in Anne’s bed, in court, accumulating her lands, titles, stripping Sarah of everything of value. After she’s learned how to maneuver in palace circles and ruthlessly defend her position in society, Abigail magnanimously concedes “You have perhaps taught me that,” giving credit where credit is due, unlike her cousin who had kept quiet about where that cure for the queen’s gout came from. Having been helped to realize her true nature, Sarah’s instructions adding the final chink in this killer’s armor, Abigail warns Harley that he’d be wise to keep her as a friend rather than an enemy because “it turns out I’m capable of much unpleasantness.”Once having gained the upper hand, securing her own place in court through marriage to Mashem, Abigail is perfectly willing to let bygones be bygones, reasoning “I could not just stand by and let you destroy me… But it’s over now. I have won. I am safe. We do not have to fight anymore.” But much as Sarah would not allow England to sue for peace with France prematurely, she won’t let Abigail just declare a truce, ceasing hostilities in the midst of battle. As in a Jacobean revenge play (“If you just forgive me, we can be happy together…”), the duel has already gone too far, past the point of no return, and satisfaction is demanded, Sarah slapping Abigail, formally laying down the challenge. Her cousin may have won the skirmish, but their war is far from over (“Obviously you still have some anger to expiate.”).While publicly proclaiming that she wants the queen to believe her to be ‘the only person in the world who asks nothing of her,’ Abigail is defined by excessive self-interest, whereas Sarah is playing for much higher stakes, assuring her cousin when Abigail expresses the belief that she’s won, “We were playing very different games.” Abigail’s assurance that “I’m on my side. Always,” is a far cry for instance from Sarah’s warning to the queen “You have no idea what I would do for my country… and for you.” We initially assume Sarah is committed to a victory in the war with France simply because her husband is at the front, but come to find she cares less about the safety of her spouse than the stature of the nation itself on the world stage. She anticipates Nathan Hale’s axiom ‘I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,’ and intends to do her bit.When Harley accuses her of not caring as the dead pile up, she retorts with sincerity “I grieve them all. In my heart, a scar for each, and I send my own beloved with them, chest bared. So do not lecture me on the cost.” When Sarah had earlier sent her maid to keep company with Anne, with the excuse that she was unavoidably detained by business of state, the queen had protested that “It’s my State. I am the business of State,” a line that sounds suspiciously akin to King IVX’s apocryphal quote “L’etat, c’est moi.” Nonetheless, by directly correlating Anne with England, dots are intended to be drawn between Sarah’s attempts to steer the ship of state while simultaneously keeping its physical embodiment, the queen, complacent.A happy Anne is a happy England, the two being one and the same to Sarah’s mind, something we don’t immediately grasp until it all begins to go wrong due to Abigail’s influence. When she’s rescued from the whorehouse, Sarah’s first thought is not for her own welfare, but to question “How goes the kingdom?” Not so well without her at the helm, as it turns out. Having had our suspicions raised earlier watching Sarah nudge Anne toward her personal preferences for parliament, we now come to find changing the cabinet to her liking was all for the good of the country as much as to place her own loyalists in positions of power. Sarah’s virtues are readily apparent only upon a second viewing when, given the benefit of hindsight we can see what England has truly lost following her removal from office, and the placement of a pack of political dilettantes in her place. With her selfless service to the crown, Sarah appears to have been the one thing singlehandedly holding the country together. Accordingly, after abandoning the foolish Anne to Abigail’s devices, both queen and country are promptly run into the ground, falling apart symbolically and literally under the corrosive new rule.Upon initial introduction with her letters of recommendation, Sarah had questioned whether her cousin could not better be employed in her present disheveled state “as a monster for the children to play with, perhaps.” But she could little have suspected how accurate that assessment would be, since Abigail does indeed become a gloating monster of total self-absorption, drunk on her own power. She’s even cruel to animals. Having gotten a taste of the good life, Abigail wants more and more, like a kid in a candy store, or the self-indulgent queen herself. Like Anne, Abigail overindulges her bottomless appetites, even upchucking as the binging queen earlier had, from all the alcohol she’s imbibed. Whereas Anne initially felt her life with nagging, plain-speaking Sarah henpecked, and her relationship with meek and mild Abigail serene, allowing the queen to feel as if she were in control, the exact opposite turns out to be true, with Abigail spending all her time hosting parties that the incapacitated Anne proves just as incapable of partaking in as the fancy dress ball Sarah threw earlier.Under Abigail, the English court, with its gluttonous feasts and libidinous orgies, reaches the debauched heights of decadent depravity, seeming just as luridly extravagant as the wastrel French aristocracy prior to the revolution. Peopled by the same sideshow circus freaks usually found in the films of Fellini, flame throwers and contortionists, and guests garishly made up in towering toupees and caked on rouge looking as grotesque in the natural light as exaggerated Greek masks, this English court doesn’t seem much different from the hellish whorehouse Sarah did time in.Abigail has risen very high, without appearing to have come very far, appearing far more dissolute and dissipated than the previous regime she replaced. With an exorbitant Abigail throwing money away as though she were Marie Antoinette, the court seems to have devolved into the sort of “monstrous extravagance” the parsimonious Sarah, a far more qualified Keeper of the Privy Purse, had so frugally inveighed against. Sarah was the only one who cautioned that royal funds should be spent more wisely (“We have a war to finance. Every penny counts.”), while the profligate queen behaved as if she had coin to burn, constructing ornate new palaces as though they were dollhouses.Which is why it’s so outrageous that Abigail will later cook the books to make it seem as if Sarah, of all people, had been embezzling from the treasury, siphoning funds from the war chest to feather her nest, and that an Anne still nursing her pique, would choose to believe such nonsense, despite knowing better. It isn’t readily apparent why Anne would allow herself to be so easily duped by Abigail’s transparent designs, throwing over the companion she’d been on intimate terms with since childhood. The movie becomes almost Becket-like in the manner it depicts their falling out as the supreme betrayal of a sacred friendship. Abigail is the consummate actress. When she senses her hold on the queen slipping, she turns on the waterworks for sympathy, as she had with Harley in the hallway earlier, when he believed he was manipulating her. In order to frame Sarah she beats herself bloody, same way Ben Whishaw did with those nosebleeds in The Lobster, staging a dramatic scene outside the library similar to the one the queen earlier had by threatening to take a flying leap out the window. Yet Anne doesn’t appear to recognize her very own ploys being used against her, any more than Sarah notes how much ground Abigail is gaining under her stewardship, until it’s too late. The queen casts the unworthy Abigail in an angelic light, taken in by the misleading mask of virtue she assumes, while Sarah ends up sporting the scary scar and eye patch of a wicked black pirate. Where Anne’s unable to see beyond the halo, claiming ‘darling’ Abigail is “A beautiful person” who “glow(s) with loveliness” we, like Sarah, take measure of her true, coiled colors (“She is a viper.”). It’s the film’s irony that it’s the classic dark lady who ends up the saint, and the fair-haired angel, with her pre-Raphaelite head of sun-kissed locks, the sinner. Like Sarah, who knows her better than anyone, we keep waiting for Anne to wise up and see through Abigail’s mask of obsequious humility, but to the bitter end the queen continues to derive perverse, sadistic pleasure from being hurt, the only way she can feel loved.When Sarah refuses to ritualistically pay court to the queen’s retinue of rabbits on the pretext that it’s macabre, and Anne charges that she would if she loved her, Sarah responds “Love has limits,” though the queen opines, “It shouldn’t.” Strengthening the cord between Anne and England, Sarah will subsequently express a similar sentiment to Harley saying “The love of your country? To me there is no limit on that. Our last farthing to protect England if we must.” Yet despite her love for queen and country, Sarah will discover to what ends she is prepared to go to in the interest of preserving both, threatening to cause a political scandal by exposing their relationship if Anne doesn’t send Abigail away.Yet even this ultimatum is not issued maliciously, with a desire for personal gain, so much as with well-founded concern for the larger welfare of the Union Jack, knowing it bodes ill for England with Abigail whispering invective in Anne’s ear. Where Sarah, in threatening to take their private affair public, mixing bedroom and boardroom politics, surprises herself is in the discovery that her love for the much scorned Anne actually ends up trumping her much vaunted love for country, in a manner she never could have anticipated (“I think I’m becoming quite sentimental as I get older.”).Her last desperate ruse to maintain her position by exposing their compromising love letters proves to be a bluff, just like that initial pot shot she took at Abigail, leaving Sarah, who didn’t think she possessed the capacity for such softness before, tossing the letters, her one winning hand, in the fire rather than publicly expose Anne’s proclivities. We now realize from the way she spoke of Anne to Abigail when out of earshot earlier, saying “The queen is an extraordinary person even if it’s not readily apparent,” that the full depth of Sarah’s affection was evident in the high regard behind those words. For all the sexual power plays engaged in throughout the film, it’s only Sarah’s sincere feelings for Anne, expressed too late, when she nakedly declares “I do not play games with you,” that remain pure and untainted.Yet “some wounds do not close,” as Godolphin, from whom Sarah has kept the terms of her dismissal from the queen’s service states, “I do not know of women and their feelings, but I know they nurse their hurts like wailing newborns.” Having made many enemies in court, Sarah ends her days exiled, noble in her defeat. But where Sarah had burned Anne’s love letters to protect the throne, Abigail intercepts her subsequent attempts at a reconciliation, flinging the missives into the fireplace before they ever reach the queen, all the while reassuring Anne no attempt to reach out and facilitate an apology has ever been attempted on Sarah’s behalf, cruelly continuing to keep the two women apart. Given their differing tacks, no clearer contrast could have been drawn between the comparative quality of the quarrelsome cousins.
Anne, who wanted to be loved badly, by Sarah, by Abigail, by her people, claims that everyone leaves her in the end. The same eye sloping closed that Sarah had discreetly covered with black lace before (“I dreamt I stabbed you in the eye.”), she proves as blind as Lear as to who her real friends are. Foolishly sending away the one person in the world who truly loved her unconditionally, Anne’s left stumbling about in the darkness same as Sarah was when blindfolded at the beginning. Never asking anything for herself, but always for queen and country, without Sarah there’s no one left to look after her, tell it like it is or place limits on Anne’s hedonistic lifestyle, since Abigail encourages her to do just as she pleases.Definitively proving never to have known what was truly in her own best interests, the foolish queen appears to be the ‘nothing’ she always feared she’d become in Sarah’s absence, setting the stage for her own debilitating ruination. Suffering from some form of paralytic stroke, Anne ends up resembling a deformed monstrosity, lumbering about on a wooden staff or slithering about on her belly, her face sagging like a gorgon. And with Harley advancing laws to benefit his wealthy landed gentry rather than their yeoman farmers, the queen virtually appears to have abdicated power to Parliament.Given her stupefied fog, Anne may indeed be slowly succumbing to Abigail’s pretty poison, as Sarah had by drinking that bitter cup of tea she’d laced. By indulging her passing fancy for Abigail, at the expense of Sarah’s tender ministrations, and growing to resent and hate her once her eyes are finally opened to what Abigail truly is, the queen has become her own worst enemy. Damning herself in this manner, the pathetic, faded figure, devoid of any air of regality, proves to her bitter end to have been “stalked by tragedy” her entire life long.
But though Abigail foolishly believes she’s triumphed, her victory proves pyrrhic as the fates likewise decree a suitable curse on this blasphemous climber. At day’s end, she’s seen to be nothing more than a pampered pet imprisoned in a glorified, gilded cage, the latest addition to Anne’s growing menagerie. Having damned herself to a life where she exists merely to service the queen’s perverse sexual whims, this is the personal ‘hell’ Sarah once warned Abigail would pass through someday, providing a suitable sense of poetic justice.
After scheming and conniving to escape the grinding cycle of poverty, winning the rat race by ascending into the royal bedchamber, Abigail simply finds herself on another sort of rodent wheel, her ambitions having condemned her to a lifetime of drudgery in service to her betters. Much like that rabbit that she resentfully crushes underfoot, the royal British boot heel remains on her back for life, as Anne places her hand on Abigail’s bowed head in the film’s haunting final image, ostensibly to steady herself, by forever keeping the kneeling supplicant down.