Movie Review: In The Favourite, The Personal Is Political

So I talked earlier in my review of the film The Lobster how I wanted to see it before watching The Favourite. Boy, am I glad I did. Like I said in the last post, Yorgos Lanthimos’ films are unconventional and it sometimes helps to watch film directors’ previous work to understand their style and their direction for their movies.

So lucky for me, I went to the library after work this Friday to check out some books, when I saw it on the Too Hot to Hold display. A copy of The Favourite. I nearly squealed loudly in the quiet of that library; I was just too goshdarn excited to contain my enthusiasm. It was here, even if I could only check it out for three days (it’s due tomorrow). And as far as I knew, for this weekend, this genius film was mine.

But something held me back from watching it, and that is the vomit scenes. I had read on Kids in Mind that the film features at least four scenes of people throwing up. Like I mentioned earlier, I am a classic emetophobe who checks every movie’s Blood and Gore section in the parent review to see if there are any gross vomit scenes. My irrational fear of seeing vomit onscreen (and in real life) was the sheer reason I held my hand up to the screen the entire first thirty minutes of the film. And let me tell you, it ruined it for me, but not by too much. I needed to go back anyway to really get what Queen Anne and Sarah were talking about with England’s war against the French. So I closed my eyes during the vomiting scenes (which, thankfully, I could anticipate) and frankly they weren’t that bad (for my fellow emetophobes, the first one begins when Queen Anne is eating cake. Close your eyes). I thought, since this is an absurdist film the vomiting scenes are going to be blown out of proportion, and it’s probably going to be like that dude on Monty Python who pukes in that restaurant (ain’t even gonna Google it again, and I suggest you not either). So honestly, they weren’t bad, and with that, I give you my actual review of the film.

First of all, I just want to say: I have a lot of feelings about this film, mainly good ones. If you haven’t seen the film, basically it takes place in 18th century England, and while it’s based on actual people, historians continue to poke and prod at its historical accuracy. Anne is a woman who is having a hard time maintaining her dignity as a royal; she suffers from gout, she can’t keep her food down her digestive system, and she is just all-around irritable. She basically feels like she has no power anymore. Her friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, maintains a rather controlling relationship with Anne, and constantly tells her she’s acting childish. However, Anne also suffers from great loss (she lost 17 children, each represented by her 17 pet rabbits) and feels lonely all the time. When Sarah’s cousin, Abigail Hill, comes to the Queen looking for work as a servant, she is immediately hired. At first, the Queen pays no mind to Abigail, but as the story goes on, they grow to become increasingly involved with each other. Sarah doesn’t like Abigail snooping into her friendship with Queen Anne, but after Abigail catches her and Anne making out in a private room after an elegant banquet (and subsequently tells Sarah she knows about their relationship), things get heated and Sarah and Abigail find themselves competing for the favor (and sexual attraction) of the Queen.

After seeing this film, I couldn’t help but think: what film about female companionship can I compare this to? I guess Abigail and Olive from Professor Marston and the Wonder Women were similar in the sense that they both seem impressionable and naive but actually hold their own throughout the film and don’t take nonsense from people. Maybe Andy Sachs from The Devil Wears Prada because Andy seems like a sad little person to Miranda Priestly and Nigel, but is actually quite determined to take Miranda’s cold and icy manner (both Olivia Colman and Meryl Steep really kill it playing women in charge). I could even think of Abigail as an 18th century Cady Heron from Mean Girls. However, none of these comparisons would be fair because The Favourite is a movie all its own. If you really want to understand why this is the case, if you have the DVD watch the 22 minute special feature where the cast and crew talk about the film and why it’s so stinking brilliant. As the cast and crew describe Yorgos’ film, this isn’t your average 18th century period film. It could have been a documentary about Anne’s life but Yorgos didn’t want that. He wanted to have fun with the film, not stick to every fact and figure. Of course, this made a lot of history buffs mad and I would argue sometimes you need to draw a fine line between taking someone’s story and then messing with it to the detriment of someone’s life (such as with Green Book. Instead of watching the film, I decided to just enjoy Don Shirley’s music because there was so much racial backlash against the film. Maybe I’ll see it someday, but for now, not going to do that.)

But that’s the whole point: this isn’t supposed to be a detailed documentary about Anne’s life; we’re talking about Yorgos Lanthimos here, the man who produced a dystopian film about a world in which single people are turned into animals if they do not find a partner within 45 days. It is inevitable that he is going to make his actors do things they normally wouldn’t do, eschewing perfectionism and conventionality for messiness and originality. All of the cast members of The Favourite–Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, James Smith, Joe Alwyn, Olivia Coleman–they all agreed that Yorgos knows what he wants and doesn’t apologize for it. He wanted them to act without asking questions or trying to stick to classical acting technique. And that’s what made The Lobster and this film absolutely brilliant. Not to mention the fact that Yorgos says in the DVD’s special feature that he wanted to have three incredibly strong-willed complex women at the forefront of the film instead of men running the show. If you notice throughout the film, Nicholas Hoult’s, James’ and Joe’s roles are very peripheral and don’t really hold much sway in the film, even when Robert Harley becomes the new prime minister and constantly tries to make Anne feel like she’s delusional and in the wrong. Yes, sure it was messed up that Anne wanted to continue the war rather than go with Harley’s call for a peace treaty, but the point of the film was to subvert traditional stories of women letting these men call the shots and make Harley look like the delusional baby who throws temper tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. Lanthimos wanted to show that this story is very relevant to today’s standards, even though it takes place in the 18th century, because there are a few people whose decisions can sway the trajectory of wider society. In other words, the film shows how the personal is political, and what seems like private biz can actually impact the decisions that people in power make.

I first heard about the concept of “the personal is political” after taking a Black Studies course on Black female activists. In the course we read autobiographies by Audre Lorde, Zora Neale Hurston and Angela Davis, and discussed heavily the phrase “the personal is political”. Four years out of college, I find myself watching the film’s special feature and the cast talking about The Favourite’s sexual politics and I immediately thought, Oh my gosh! This film could be whole dissertation on the personal is political! For some background info, Carol Hanisch wrote a 1969 essay titled “The Personal is Political”, in which she talks about the history of feminism and how, during her activism, both men and women in the progressive group she was a part of, criticized any woman who tried to bring personal issues, such as body image and sex, into activism because they didn’t think of those issues as being on a par with the struggle for women’s equal pay and other social issues. These critics said that women should basically just get over themselves and focus on the world’s problems rather than your own. Hanisch argues that issues that seem to only be about women’s personal lives actually play a pretty huge role in women’s activism because the media often tells women how they should express their sexuality and live their lives, while ignoring any resistance they have to being pigeonholed into these traditional roles.

Anne’s struggles may seem like First World Problems; she struggles with her self-image and needs Sarah and Abigail to make her feel beautiful. She has a hard time leading the country even when she has a seriously debilitating illness. And she feels unfulfilled as a queen even with all these servants and people to listen to her speeches. However, her sexual relationships with both Sarah and Abigail play a huge role in the decisions she makes for the country. She finds herself agreeing with Sarah all the time because Sarah forces her to believe the way she does, but then Anne falls in love with Abigail and suddenly she starts trusting Abigail’s political opinion and dismissing Sarah’s. Anne’s seemingly insignificant issues with her self-image really do impact how she leads the country because she closes herself away in her room instead of wanting to take full charge over the political decisions, even trying to commit suicide at one point because she’s just so sick of life. We normally think of queens as these stately people who have their stuff together and don’t let their personal lives get in the way of their reigning, but what I love about this film is that Anne doesn’t have her stuff together. She is a messy human being with thoughts and feelings, and her personal life is very much tied to her political life. And that’s how it is in real life; I could list several examples. Anne’s sexuality, bad health and bad temper shape her identity and sense of self, which is actually pretty empowering because then as the viewer, we get to view her as an extremely well-rounded character just as we do Sarah and Abigail rather than as merely this grumpy lady who ruled England. Anne also doesn’t need a man to make her feel like an empowered woman who can hold her own; she’s got two incredibly lovely women who are also quite in love with her, and so she gets an opportunity to defy heteronormative standards that dictate the only relationships she should have is a straight one.

In one of the film’s deep scenes, Abigail is admiring Anne’s seventeen rabbits, and Anne tells her that each rabbit represents a child she lost. When she had kids, Anne miscarried. Her babies were stillborn. Those who lived died really young. Anne’s grief takes an extremely psychological toll on her, especially when, in the last scene, Anne forces Abigail to get on her knees like she did when she was a servant and rub Anne’s leg since she is in pain from the gout, and slowly, with ominous piano music playing in the background, the close-up of Abigail slowly falling apart emotionally, after realizing how little Anne actually cares for her in the end, gradually becomes overshadowed with Anne’s seventeen bunnies hopping around Anne’s room. These bunnies represent the loss and emotional overwhelming Anne feels at that crucial moment; the death of her children, her complex relationships with Anne and Abigail, her struggle for political power hit Anne all at once. At first, when Melissa McCarthy came on the Oscar stage dressed in Anne’s coat with 17 bunnies on it while presenting the award for Costume Design, I laughed. But after seeing this film, I have a hard time laughing at Melissa’s costume, even though I know it was played for laughs, because the context of these bunnies is dark and, to be honest, quite depressing. The so-called “personal problems” that Hanisch talks about in her essay were often viewed as just that, personal women’s issues. Hanisch says

as a movement woman, I’ve been pressured to be strong, self-less, other-oriented, sacrificing, and in general pretty much in control of my own life. To admit to the problems in my life is to be deemed weak.

Hanisch, “The Personal is Political” (Feb. 1969)

However, losing children was a very political issue; people felt pity for Anne because she seemed to be this hopeless, childless woman who was mentally ill and delusional about everything. However, as we see in the film, even though she lost her children, she is still aware of the power she holds as a queen. We can see it from the burning jealous look she silently gives Sarah while Sarah is dancing with Masham. Anne is jealous because she actually loves Sarah not just as a friend but as a lover, and she uses her position to bark at the two of them to stop dancing so that Sarah can lead Anne back to her room and the two of them can get it on without the court spying on them. She is an 18th century version of Beyonce’s Lemonade, throwing her middle fingers up and saying “Boy, bye” to any man who tries to talk down to her, dishing out disses so fast you’d have to rewind the movie a couple of times just to feel the burn every time she says them. Heck, all the women in the film have a smart sarcastic wit that you just cannot mess with. The one scene in which the diss is at its peak epicness is when Sarah suddenly shoots at Abigail and tells her, in a cutting voice, that it’s hard to tell whether a gun is actually loaded or not and basically tells her to stay away from her and Anne. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if they played “Backstabbers” by The O’Jays because there is so much backstabbing and throwing shade left and right you would think this was the 18th century version of some epic rap battle.

The only thing that bugged me about the film (and if you have 20/20 vision I’m sure you could read the lettering better than I did) was the spacing and size of the lettering in the end credits. I am not saying I absolutely hated the lettering in the end credits; I get it, the whole style of formatting for the font was supposed to be austere and dark, like the film, so they made the text white, fragmented and with various sizes and alignments of lettering when they listed the production companies and Roman-numeraled titles of the film’s multiple parts. However, when I tried to read the end credits I nearly strained my vision in just five minutes and didn’t think I would ever gain my vision again. I know it was cool to not have literally rolling credits in The Lobster, you can’t make the font all wonky, apply the same non-rolling effect to the credits, and expect people will enjoy reading it. The few things I did make out during those end credits:

  • Ryan Gosling was in the special thanks portion. His was the first and only name I could make out. I thought, Wait, the Ryan Gosling? Maybe Emma Stone told him she was making this super-dope queer love story that takes place in 18th century England and Ryan was like, Oh cool, I’m down!
  • I recognized that Elton John was singing the harpsichord version of “Skyline Pigeon” in the credits. His was also one of the few names I could make out.

However, I will say I liked how this time in the credits, instead of last time like in The Lobster, they actually admitted to ensuring that the animals in the film were being taken care of. Like The Lobster, we see animal cruelty at its finest (again, Yorgos, don’t worry I won’t call PETA on you lol): Emma Stone nearly crushing a bunny to death with her high heel, birds getting tossed into the air and shot for sport, lobsters being raced before turning into food, and ducks racing in a palace while a bunch of royals enthusiastically shout and cheer during the game in a rather exaggerated slow-mo. However, unlike The Lobster, they didn’t want to hurt these darling animals. In The Lobster, the animal cruelty is waaaay more pronounced and it goes unacknowledged in the credits. I doubt PETA was knocking on his door, but I’m sure someone expressed their discomfort with harming animals to Yorgos and he embraced it.

When I first saw The Favourite trailer, it was in a showing of Wonder Woman and all the trailers featured women playing strong complex characters with interesting backstories. I’m pretty sure Alita: Battle Angel and some other feministy films were the previews, but all I remember is watching the trailer for The Favourite and getting excited for it immediately after watching it. I feel so fortunate this film came out, and if you still have yet to see it, let me show you this montage of clips presented by the Queen (yes, I thought it was fitting they chose Queen Latifah to present the film because she is truly a Queen) from the film. If it still doesn’t convince you to see it, I don’t know what else will. Overall, a very brilliant film. Olivia Colman definitely deserved her Oscar for Best Leading Actress, and her genuinely beautiful and sweet acceptance speech will make you laugh and cry all at once.

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