When compared to his previous work, Yorgos Lanthimos’s outstanding new film The Favourite seems almost straightforward. That might sound like a strange thing to say about a movie depicting the sexual rivalry between two women in the early 18th century as they battle for the affection of an increasingly ill Queen Anne while surrounded by scheming lords, fish-eye lenses, and 17 symbolic rabbits — 1 for each of the queen’s dead children — but unlike its predecessors, which include a feral family drama from hell (Dogtooth), a dating satire in which people are turned into animals if they can’t find a mate (The Lobster), and a restaging of Greek tragedy in upper-class Cincinnati (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), The Favourite takes place in a world that we might recognize.
This isn’t to say that Lanthimos’s other films don’t have a great deal to say about our current situation; they do, disturbingly so. But their approach tends toward the metaphorical, and the acting style that Lanthimos favored before The Favourite was aggressively deadpan, encouraging a certain distance that, one might argue, went a long way toward making the horror go down. The Favourite is the first of his movies to be scripted by someone other than himself, and the first since his debut, Kinetta, not to include co-writer Efthymis Filippou. It also sheds the deliberately affectless acting for a more naturalistic style, no small risk when you’re five features in and have found an approach that works.
What’s so shocking, then, about The Favourite is the success of his new direction, and just how vibrantly alive it is — if Lanthimos up to this point had been a sort of necromancer, descending into Hades to show why the dead were damned, then The Favourite reveals him to be just as vital when working with the painfully living. But we should know better than to expect this filmmaker to deliver a simple story, and in the last shots of the movie, he characteristically complicates the narrative.
Where are we, then, at the end? After a film-long struggle between Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), lifelong friend and adviser to Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), and her upstart cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), newly arrived at court and wily as a fox, a decisive victory has been won. Abigail’s poisoning of Sarah’s tea sent her riding off into the woods, where she passed out and was taken in by the madam of a brothel, then retrieved by her ally Godolphin. Upon returning to court, she tries to force Anne to send Abigail away, and she even threatens to reveal secret letters — scandalous letters, of course — to that old thorn Jonathan Swift. This is the last straw for Anne, who bans her from her bedroom and eventually has her removed from the palace.
Meanwhile, Abigail has, by wedding a colonel, nimbly ascended from maid to lady, and installed herself in the palace, as well as in Queen Anne’s bed. In a moment of great significance, Sarah warns Anne that, while she may be cruel and harsh and sometimes manipulative, she is trustworthy — and that’s exactly what Abigail is not. But Anne brushes her off, and Sarah heads to her estate, where Godolphin advises her to write to the queen and apologize.
Sure enough, Sarah’s words come true when Abigail attempts to suggest that Sarah had been cooking the books, stealing money from the crown for her and her husband. This is going too far: Anne knows that Sarah, despite her faults and ambition, would never stoop to that, and she tells Abigail so; Abigail leaves her bedroom chanting “fuck” like it’s a mantra.
But the critical moment is still to come. Anne waits on the letter that she expects from Sarah, the letter that would allow her to forgive; Sarah finally deigns to write said letter; and Abigail dutifully screens the mail until it arrives, at which point, sealing the fate of all three, she casts it into the fire. A chain reaction follows: Hurt and furious at what she perceives as Sarah’s silence, Anne uses Abigail’s lie to have Sarah and her husband banished, and Abigail is victorious — but at a cost.
Throughout the film, Abigail insists that she won’t betray her morals. By the end, she has clearly done so, and that renders her victory meaningless. Lanthimos has gone to great lengths to show that the ecosystem of the palace is a fragile one, and that its balance was finely maintained by Sarah through a remarkable mixture of statesmanship, affection, and clarity of sight. Sarah might not be a perfect person, but she is honest, and there are few things more valuable to a queen than honesty, particularly when it can be delivered in the proper way.
Abigail, on the other hand, becomes a figure who would fit in beautifully in our own contemporary politics, and, probably, at any other time since man started walking upright. She knows how to gain power, but she has no idea how to wield it: She’s all appetite. Even though the queen sees Abigail for what she is the moment she lies about Sarah’s alleged theft, Anne’s vanity and fragility, well-documented by now, are crippling: She believes that Sarah has forsaken her, and she’d rather hurt Sarah with Abigail than send Abigail away.
In the final scene, Anne forces a defiant Abigail to rub her legs, taking hold of her hair and forcing her down. The message is clear: The scales have fallen from Anne’s eyes. She knows Abigail’s a liar, but she’s too weak and human to send her away. And Abigail might be a lady, but her existence is dependent on the queen. Her victory is Pyrrhic, coming at the cost of the illusion, long believed by Anne, that Abigail was a nice person, an innocent person, a sweet person — all in contrast to Sarah. Ironically, the winner might be Sarah, who is, at least, free.
As Anne digs her hand into Abigail’s hair, Lanthimos performs a magic trick. The image warps and distends, and the two women’s faces are superimposed over one another: They’re caged together in a hell of their own making, one wrought through deceit and greed. And then, terrifyingly, Lanthimos adds the rabbits to this collage, and it grows trippier and more addled until we fade to black. If The Favourite has been set somewhat apart from Lanthimos’s filmography up to that moment, this shot provides a bridge, stamping the movie with his signature brand of psychological terror that conveys a deeper meaning.
The rabbits, of course, represent the queen’s dead children, 1 for each of the 17 lost, but they mean even more than that. Sarah criticized the rabbits as sentimental and macabre; Abigail, on the other hand, used them to ingratiate herself with the queen. In a sense, Abigail appeared to be a rabbit herself, beautiful and cuddly and harmless. But with that final shot, Lanthimos conveys a different message. Abigail’s act has taken on a bastardized truth: She’s a pet, caged and helpless. And the queen’s desperate desire for unconditional love, the love of the children she doesn’t have, has led her to cast off the one person who truly cared about her. All she’s left with are rabbits.