Three’s a Crowd

The Twisted War of Influence in The Favourite

Fox Searchlight

There’s a dance piece by Simone Forti during which two people balance on a see-saw. They shimmy and wobble from side to side until they find a spot where their weight is evenly distributed, and for a brief time, as long as they can sustain it, neither of them touches the ground. The choreography is inspired by a playground game built for two, but it could be said that the undeclared third player is the see-saw itself. For without this toy, this human-sized scale of sorts, the two participants would have nothing to occupy themselves with apart from each other—the see-saw turns it into a game. And while the two players are riding the wooden plank, seemingly in charge of its movements, it’s really not up to them who it favors and leaves on top, looking down at the other.  

Relationships are often based on relativity—the roles we assume are dependent on who is in our immediate vicinity. When only two parties are at play, a balance naturally develops. Throw a third into the mix, though, and things get confusing.

In The Favourite, the latest feature from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, we’re introduced to Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), also known as Lady Marlborough,  a duo who seem to have their partnership down to a science. We’re in early 18th-century England and the ailing queen is a figurehead in the truest sense. Not only is she beholden to parliament under the current constitutional monarchy, but Sarah has, over time, become her spokesperson, and the only subject Anne truly trusts. Sarah leads Anne to believe that her decisions are her own, but often takes advantage of Anne’s limited attention span and waning health to enact her own agenda—in this case, keeping England engaged in a costly war with France that’s benefiting the landed aristocracy. She can do this so easily because theirs is a friendship that’s endured since childhood, and grown into something that both would classify as love.

As a director, Lanthimos has perpetually been interested in the nature of love, exploring its honesty and artifices throughout his growing body of work. In Dogtooth (2009), to love is to dissemble, as overbearing parents hide anything they deem nasty or disagreeable from their children. They go so far as to invent a new vocabulary, having their adult children recite lines like, “a carbine is a beautiful white bird.” In The Lobster (2015), love is a social convention and survival tactic—if you don’t pair off with someone, you’re turned into an animal. And in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), Lanthimos questions if love can be measured, forcing a parent to choose which family member they wouldn’t mind murdering.

In the court of Queen Anne, love is just as tricky. How could it not be, when unshakable loyalty is a prerequisite to staying in the Queen’s good graces, and within the palace walls? To even warrant an audience with Anne, she has to be confident that you won’t upset her delicate sensibilities—which could send her into a bout of depression. Colman fully devotes herself to this juvenile portrayal of the Queen, equally prone to sulking or throwing a full-blown tantrum in public to show her displeasure.

Things are different with Sarah. She doesn’t resort to superfluous flattery around Anne, instead believing that honesty is the truest manifestation of love. When Anne wants Sarah to dote on the 17 pet rabbits she keeps in her bedchamber, Sarah refuses. “If you love me—” Anne says. “Love has limits,” Sarah interrupts. “It should not,” Anne replies. The limits of her love materialize in other ways. In one instance, Sarah isn’t shy when telling Anne to tone down her excessive eyeshadow before meeting the Russian delegation. “You look like a badger,” she bluntly declares. “Are you going to cry?” Sarah teases. Anne takes a look at herself in the mirror, pouts a bit, and agrees that the makeup has to go.

Sarah tempers her cruel-to-be-kind attitude, however, with physical affection carried out in private. It’s been rumored throughout history that Anne and Sarah were, in fact, lovers, and in this retelling, their relationship goes far beyond the bonds of camaraderie. It’s as if they both enjoy their forbidden love affair, sneaking off during parties and pinning each other against the walls in the dark recesses of the palace. While her ability to fulfill the Queen’s sexual appetite certainly adds to Sarah’s hold over Anne, we never see Sarah secretly gag at the thought of fulfilling her “duties,” despite the Queen’s unflattering presentation: overweight, plagued with gout, and with a formidable resting bitch face. It appears as if they’re both getting something out of it.

This unusual but functional friendship is thrown off-course by the entry of a third player, one who’s just as cunning as Sarah, but who isn’t above flattery (even when it comes to pet rabbits). At first, the arrival of Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) doesn’t set off any alarm bells. Sarah’s cousin from a formerly noble household, Abigail has fallen victim to her father’s gambling habits—he lost her in a game of whist, along with the rest of his fortune. When Abigail first meets Sarah, covered in mud after being unceremoniously thrown from a carriage at the palace gates, Sarah jokingly asks if she’d like to be employed as “a monster for the children to play with.” The only thing is, there’s hardly a child in sight—Anne having lost 17 children through miscarriages or illness (hence the rabbits, one for each dead child). It’s Anne and Sarah who end up recruiting Abigail as a plaything, not realizing the monstrous ambition that lurks under her surface.

At first, Sarah takes pity on Abigail and employs her as a maid: “I have a thing for the weak,” she confesses. But in one telling moment, Abigail takes note of how she might start to subtly wade into the waters of their friendship, sabotaging Sarah in the process. In a sign of trust by Sarah, Abigail is summoned to the royal chamber one night during one of the Queen’s fits of gout. Anne lies on the floor, wailing in agony as Sarah and Abigail wrap slabs of meat around her inflamed legs. Sarah tries to calm the Queen by telling her the story of how they met, as lovers are wont to do. It turns out Sarah saved Anne from being raped in the woods when they were children, a narrative that helps explain Anne’s total reliance on her more powerful friend. As she tells the story, something strange happens. Sarah, Anne and Abigail’s faces are overlaid upon one another, recalling both the ominous crossfades favored by Stanley Kubrick, and the identity-mingling special effects of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). The next scene shows Abigail sneaking into the woods to craft an herbal salve to reduce the Queen’s swelling. She catches on quickly—the way to the Queen’s heart is to be her white knight, whether it’s saving her from an attack of men or an attack of gout. This is the first sign that these three women are evolving, but it’s unclear whether they’re forming a holy trinity or a three-headed beast.

Sarah, appreciative of Abigail’s act of kindness (and unaware of any ulterior motive), promotes her cousin, giving her her own room and allowing her to shuttle the Queen between parliament and her bedchamber. Unbeknownst to Sarah, she’s also given Abigail a leg up in the grotesque competition that’s taking shape, one on par with the duck races held by members of court—which are shot by Director of Photography Robbie Ryan from distorted angles and presented in slow-motion to accentuate the twisted grimaces and gesticulations of the onlookers as the ducks scurry through the hall. While audiences may watch these women with horror and delight, we’re not meant to pick sides in their duck race. “I didn’t want to have a villain and a victim,” Lanthimos says about the three characters. “Instead the idea of who is a villain or a victim is one that shifts and changes and moves from one character to another. This way you feel for what they each do and you aren’t be able to make absolute judgments on their characters even if they do a horrible thing.”

And so while one player may seem to be in the lead at any given moment, they’re perpetually caught between competing influences that undercut their power. Just as they accede to the top of the see-saw, they find themselves slowly coming down to earth. Within the psyche, we, too, are infinitely mediating between opposing impulses. To speak in Freudian terms, our id beseeches us to answer to our basest instincts, while our superego is the voice of reason and societal norms. The ego is thus left to try to sort out where the middle ground lies—and in The Favourite, it’s always on shaky territory.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better personification of pure id than Queen Anne. She’s an emperor who wears no clothes (literally, she’s rarely clad in much more than a nightie), much like what you’d imagine in a sequel to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette if Kirsten Dunst’s character hadn’t met such an early end. Anne lets herself eat cake even though sugar makes her hurl, and will shriek at an entire string ensemble to stop playing because she’s in a bad mood. It’s difficult to ignore the parallels to the current U.S. president, someone who appears to enjoy the pleasurable parts of being in power, but finds it hard to stay awake for anything more serious than racing and subsequently eating two lobsters.

Thank god, then, for Sarah, the foil to Anne’s stunted selfhood. If Anne is all id, Sarah takes the shape of the superego, regulating the Queen’s turbulent temper and trying her best to run the country. When placed in the middle of these two forces, Abigail—who’s perhaps closest to the ego, with her opportunistic nature and false sense of authority—finds herself at a standstill. As Abigail tries to serve Anne and Sarah hot chocolate, Sarah stops her, forbidding Anne from having any sugar. Anne commands her to give it to her. Sarah counters with a firm “no.” “I’m sorry, I do not know what to do,” Abigail deadpans. Ultimately, Anne gets the hot chocolate.

But while Abigail is at first little more than a pawn for the id and superego to fight over, she’s surprisingly clever, with endless tricks up her sleeves and within the pockets of her billowing gowns. She draws on the same nosebleed trick from The Lobster, slamming a book into her face to induce a sympathy-inspiring injury when she thinks it might benefit her. Lanthimos and Ryan use almost entirely natural light and candlelight (as Lanthimos does in all his films), and characters are often shot standing before a window, completely backlit, as if to hide their true natures. The moment Sarah realizes that Abigail has gone from plaything to player is shot chiaroscuro. As Sarah opens the Queen’s door holding a chamberstick, moving delicately toward her bed, the scene slowly illuminates to show a sleeping Abigail wrapped up Anne’s arms. Sarah is horrified to find her most valued position has been usurped.

Abigail’s motives are self-centered, we soon learn, but she manages to form a bond with Anne that goes rather deep. The Queen goes so far as to reveal the morbid origin of the rabbits to Abigail, at the same time sharing a little bit about how she came to be the way she is: “Each one that dies, a little bit of you goes with them,” she says of the children she’s lost. Anne suddenly gains Abigail’s sympathy, and ours.

The death of even one child is unthinkable, but to lose 17 leaves Anne in a warped limbo between motherhood and childhood, unable to take care of herself or anyone else. She substitutes her children with rabbits, but also takes pleasure in the sort of sibling rivalry that forms between Sarah and Abigail. Lanthimos cites Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972) as an influence for this film, and beyond the huis clos of the interior action and frank depictions of physical pain and the loss of a child, we can also see parallels in the shifting relations between siblings, oscillating between violence and affection. The film tells the story of three sisters (Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin and Liv Ullmann) and their maid (Kari Sylwan) contending with death, guilt, and repressed sexuality, all within the suffocating red walls of their country manor, the same one they’ve lived in all their lives. Like Anne in her palace, living in the house you’ve occupied since childhood is bound to leave you stunted.  

Anne may be the puppet master of the two women who cozy themselves up to her, but she is herself torn between opposing influences. The Whigs and the Tories in Parliament collectively shout at her from either side of the aisle, urging her to continue or end the war. At one point she goes so far as to faint instead of making a decision in either of their favor. Meanwhile, Abigail and Sarah are courted by both parties to try and influence the Queen, and since Sarah is married to Whig leader John Churchill (James Smith), Abigail goes to bat for Tory leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult). Harley helps arrange a marriage between Abigail and Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), a courtier in the Queen’s household, guaranteeing her renewed status as a lady and a permanent place in court. Abigail gets what she wants, and the Queen gets a replacement for Sarah in her inner circle.

Slowly it dawns on Abigail that the only other members of this circle are 17 rabbits, and she is at the penultimate rung of a food chain that subsists on cake and carrots. Anne can never really be in charge of the country, but she’s at least found some subjects she can rule over. As Abigail lounges in the Queen’s bedchamber drinking champagne in the middle of the day, she starts to crush a rabbit beneath the heel of her elaborately bejeweled shoe, stopping just short of killing the poor animal.

Anne opted for Abigail over Sarah because she couldn’t tolerate a love that was sincere or conditional, and as Abigail is summoned to rub Anne’s legs, the camera rests on her face for an almost insufferable period of time, as if to say she will be stuck kneeling beneath the Queen for eternity. We cut to Anne’s face as seen from Abigail’s perspective: her illness has made half her face sag, and her chins hang heavy in the close-up shot. Is this love? In this case, it seems Abigail’s survival technique has barely differentiated her from an animal—a cruel joke in the world of The Lobster. As a shot of the rabbits crossfades over Abigail’s face, we can tell the see-saw has landed, and Abigail’s the one looking up.