Fans of Poor Things Should Revisit Yorgos Lanthimos’ Previous Film

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Summary

  • The Favourite satirizes class rigidity in 19th-century Britain while examining power dynamics with acidic wit. It’s Lanthimos’ crowning achievement.
  • Compared to Poor Things, The Favourite is more grounded with a recognizable setting. Lanthimos uses absurdity and off-kilter perspectives to highlight inequality.
  • The Favourite is a feminist triumph, portraying morally ambiguous and nuanced female characters. It explores the sacrifices and manipulation that come with gaining power.


Poor Things, one of the best films of 2023, only seems to be gaining more Oscar momentum every week. And with good reason, it’s the kind of bizarre, visionary work that isn’t made often enough in this day and age. Yet director Yorgos Lanthimos first collaborated with star Emma Stone (as well as screenwriter Tony McNamara) six years ago, possibly to an even more quirky, intoxicating effect.

Their first team-up, 2018’s The Favourite, remains an utter gem to this day, brilliantly satirizing the rigidity of class within 19th-century Great Britain while thoughtfully examining the extreme lengths people go to to gain or hold onto power. It’s a film with the memorably acidic wit that keeps it from feeling like any other period drama, with Lanthimos forcing viewers to look at the era without rose-colored glasses. We witness the debauchery and backstabbing that made the era so ruthless. Lanthimos’ go-for-broke attitude towards it all makes The Favourite arguably his crowning achievement as a director.


The Favourite Is More Grounded Than Poor Things

the favourite
The Favourite

Release Date
November 23, 2018

Runtime
120

Main Genre
History

Compared to Poor Things‘ highly fantastical world, The Favourite is considerably more grounded and immediately recognizable in its setting, albeit a couple of centuries removed. That said, Lanthimos treats 19th-century Britain with the same kind of absurdist, cockeyed perspective with which he depicted the Victorian era, utilizing opulence and off-kilter camera angles and lenses to suggest a world thrown off its axis by inequality.

The Favourite‘s plot depicts the power struggle between Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), and her cousin Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) through their competing efforts to win favor from Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, in an Oscar-winning performance). Lanthimos frankly depicts the symbiotic relationships between all three of these characters, specifically in how Sarah (initially the Queen’s “favorite”) becomes increasingly sympathetic as she’s displaced from power and how Abigail, in turn, becomes ruthless as she gains influence. Queen Anne, who ultimately holds both of them under her thumb, is herself a tragic figure, isolated and unable to connect with anyone beneath her.

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Lanthimos’ directorial approach here differs significantly from the lighter touch he displayed in Poor Things. In that film, he used protagonist Bella Baxter as a sort of audience surrogate figure through which to display the inherent absurdity of its setting. Through the eyes of a figurative (and partially literal) child-like Bella, viewers could experience firsthand how ridiculous inequality and power struggles look when seen from an outsider’s perspective. In The Favourite, we’re directly on the frontlines of the power struggle, forced to empathize with cold-hearted figures who manipulate their way to power.

While Poor Things had an idealistic conclusion and firmly believed in man’s ability to change and self-improve over time, The Favourite‘s ultimate conceit is significantly more pessimistic. In Lanthimos’ eyes, accruing power means inescapably sacrificing a sliver of humanity, and if you somehow make it to the top, uneasy will lie the head that wears the crown. The result is one of the darkest comedies of recent years, almost gleeful in its cynicism.

The Favourite Is a Uniquely Feminist Fable

Poor Things was widely renowned for its feminism, which centered on Bella Baxter’s journey of self-discovery, similar to Barbie before it, and efforts to reject the social expectations placed upon her as a woman. The Favourite is arguably every bit as much a feminist triumph, albeit in a more complex, nuanced manner. Lanthimos’ tale treats feminism not so much as a matter of pure female empowerment; he’s not afraid to allow Colman, Weisz, and Stone to play morally ambiguous, nuanced characters among the most multidimensional in any work of fiction in the last decade.

Key to this success is how these characters carry equal parts humanity and folly. Sarah Churchill is demeaning to those beneath her, but she also seems to be the only one who knows what’s best for the Queen, harsh as she can be. Abigail openly manipulates everyone around her, but considering her father gambled her away, it’s hard to blame her for wanting to regain a title. And Queen Anne, while mad with power and control, is also virtually unloved and lonely. Her pet rabbits, often her only company, are tragically revealed to be named after the seventeen newborn children she lost.

The Favourite also slightly differs from Poor Things regarding what may be the most controversial factor of the latter film – the portrayal of sexuality. While both movies are matter-of-fact in the depiction of their sexual content, Poor Things treated it as an important part of Bella’s self-discovery; her sexual activity allowed her to experience a degree of control in her life and to understand herself more keenly. In The Favourite, sex is purely treated as a means of manipulation and dominance.

This is seen most prominently in Queen Anne’s relationship with Sarah. It’s undeniable that Sarah uses her sexual relationship with Anne to sway her political decision-making and to maintain favor with her, but it gradually becomes evident that she does seem to have some genuine affection towards her. Abigail, in contrast, only sleeps with Anne as a means to an end, and every encounter they have has almost all passion stripped from it. Anne herself seems to realize this in the final scene; after Sarah is exiled, Anne notices Abigail abusing one of her rabbits and angrily orders her to massage her legs. Even after Abigail has become the new “favorite,” Anne asserts her dominance once again, and it becomes clear who truly holds power between them.

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Yorgos Lanthimos Is at His Best in The Favourite

Five years after its release, The Favourite remains as bitingly satirical and compulsively watchable as ever, with a caustic wit that puts most other class critiques to shame. Lanthimos’ jet-black cynicism is perfectly matched with Tony McNamara’s brilliant script and his three flawless lead actresses, and the result is a modern masterwork that shows a true visionary at the top of his craft with one of Yorgos Lanthimos’ best films. As Poor Things heads for possible Oscar glory, it’s time to revisit The Favourite once again. The Favourite is available to rent on Prime Video.

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