What The Favourite can teach us about female representation in popular cinema

Women’s stories can be very different from men’s. But are women themselves? Popular female storytelling in film, particularly in the hands of men, is so often disappointingly predictable and narrow: strength is translated in the main as physical, motivation stems from trauma. When a director – with the best intentions – dismisses the impact of gender, race or sexuality, saying they don’t want it to get in the way of telling a human tale, it’s so often a recipe for disaster. At worst, women are written as walking mouthpieces for their issues; at best, their behaviour is still so often tightly laced into restrictive stereotypes.

Enter The Favourite, equipped to change the game with a nuance and subtlety that contrasts gleefully with its coarse dialogue and visually arresting style. Here it is women that drive the story, and that utter its most memorable lines. The script’s origins were a long-polished labour of love from Deborah Davis, and producer Ceci Dempsey championed it for nearly two decades before it was taken up by screenwriter Tony McNamara and director Yorgos Lanthimos.

In many other hands, this might have been the moment it all went wrong. An intimate, real-life power struggle, complete with lesbian entanglements, could easily have been irresistible catnip for a still overwhelmingly male industry. As fortune would have it, Lanthimos swiftly identified – and eviscerated – the elephant in the room.

“What we tried to do is portray them as human beings,” he told press at the Venice Film Festival. “Because of the prevalent male gaze in cinema, women are portrayed as housewives, girlfriends… Our small contribution is we’re just trying to show them as complex and wonderful and horrific as they are, like other human beings.”

As a result, The Favourite‘s brutal and bawdy interplay between its leads – all at the top of their formidable game – sharply succeeds where so many other pallid efforts have failed. And it does so by grounding the characters in circumstances only a woman of the time could find herself in, but not holding them there like pinned butterflies. The background of each is resonantly, sometimes uniquely, female: recently impoverished gentlewoman Abigail (Emma Stone) faces the choice of back-breaking domestic drudgery or involuntary prostitution while Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), trades intense friendship and sexual favours for political influence. And the peevish and beleaguered Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) at the centre of their tug of war dotes on hutches full of rabbits that represent each of her 17 lost children.

In spite of that, it remains a curious fact that if the entire cast of The Favourite were to be sex-swapped, but for a handful of pronouns barely a word of the script would need to change – particularly in terms of tone or delivery. The outrageously baroque court provides some cover for this; even the Queen is frequently dressed with greater simplicity and restraint than the powdered and bewigged Leader of the Opposition, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult obviously enjoying himself). When she does scrub up for a public appearance she’s immediately slapped down by her childhood friend and lover. “You look like a badger,” Lady Marlborough retorts, dispatching the bewildered monarch back to her apartments to wash off her eyeliner. Later, Abigail comments on Harley’s running mascara. And even on the few occasions that the issue of gender is directly raised, as when the gossipy PM Goldophin observes to Sarah that he “does not know of women and their feelings, but I know they nurse their hurts like wailing newborns”, it’s swiftly dismissed – in that instance with a distinctly unladylike threat of a broken nose.

Each of the women is so richly rounded and beautifully well developed that it cannot help but serve and drive the story. The decisions they make stem directly from their own warped view of the world: a tormented queen who mistakes tyranny for power, a desperate servant who (not unreasonably) equates safety with success, and an ambitious noblewoman who draws no line between honesty and brutality. Caught in Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s queasily realised web – all fish-eye lenses, distorted perspective and claustrophobic angles – they move inexorably in the fixed directions of chess pieces. And like a game of chess, though the most important character is the queen, the board could be anyone’s.

Sex, too, gets the direct treatment. While certainly crude, the film is rarely graphic. There’s not a heaving bosom or a bitten lip in sight, and most intimate scenes focus either on the consequences of the action – or something else altogether. Abigail makes an intially ignominious entry to court life, tossed from a coach in which a man has been frantically masturbating; later she stews over her own plans while nonchalantly servicing her new husband, the camera fixed to her furiously contemplative face. If the same-sex scenes are gentler there’s no lingering or leering; it’s because there’s some genuine heartfelt emotion at the core. Lanthimos was determined that the queer relationships shouldn’t be singled out overtly within the narrative, but they are handled with care insofar as it serves the story.

Stripped of the instinct for self-congratulation that appears in so many films that explore gender, the storytelling sparkles and the cast are unshackled to do their best work. In recent years, female audiences have enjoyed a run of fist-pumping moments with tentpole releases like Wonder Woman and the women of Black Panther‘s Wakanda. The explosive success of the much more personal coming-of-age mother-daughter drama Lady Bird showed box office appetite for stories that centre women. And yet in popular, generously marketed and award-chasing cinema there’s been a continuing lack of female storytelling that doesn’t signpost its intention a mile away. More recently, Paul Feig’s A Simple Favour made a valiant stab at it with some success, although it still relied on playing with female archetypes – the good girl mum blogger, the career bitch – to achieve its aims.  In The Favourite the conditions are familiarly, perhaps depressingly, female, but the characterisation is comprehensively human. And so it becomes that rare treat: a deeply, resonantly female film that nevertheless lacks a narrowly defined pigeonhole to be stuffed in.

 

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