The first time British actor Joe Alwyn appears in The Favourite – the 2018 comedy-drama that dominated last week's BAFTA nominations – he doesn't say anything. We see him on horseback. He is classically – perhaps even scientifically – handsome, wearing a loose, flowing white shirt. It's a perfect snapshot from the Colin Firth playbook of romantic period-drama heroes.
In this scene, Alwyn's character, Samuel Masham, is watching someone, a girl. She's picking leaves from the foliage that surrounds them both. He looks at her, and we look at him looking at her. Eventually she notices him, and he rides away, wordlessly. The scene ends.
None of this is unusual out of context. As viewers used to Hollywood, we are familiar with seeing the male gaze enacted both in and by films, but a closer look at this moment tells a bigger story of subversion – one that permeates the whole two hours of Yorgos Lanthimos's latest movie.
In this scene, Masham imagines himself the dashing protagonist – and normally he would be. But in The Favourite, a film utterly concerned with subverting gender expectations and tropes at every level, it is him, the man, who embodies a conventional pin-up image. The moment he is first spotted on his horse is played for pure gratuity; it's essentially the period movie equivalent of the first time you see Cameron Diaz in The Mask. It is, therefore, him – not the girl – who is positioned to be looked at.
By contrast, that girl – Abigail Hill (played by Emma Stone) – is the character we have been following up to this point. Throughout The Favourite, it is with her and the two other women with whom she is locked in a sexual and political power struggle that we are encouraged to empathise. As such, the very gaze of the film – in which women are both the desiring and the desired – feels like a female one.
The Favourite is a film with three women at its centre. Stone's Abigail is joined by Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and Queen Anne of Britain (Olivia Colman, in an already award-winning performance). Together, they enact a chess game of sex, politics and betrayal in which they manoeuvre around one another, as dominance continually changes hands.
To make the point that it's women who control this narrative – women who wield power and have the most tangible sway – almost feels moot because it’'s so obvious. All three of these characters are fleshed out, and, as such, imperfect. They are three-dimensional human beings in a Hollywood landscape where female characters do not always get to be. Thus, The Favourite’s power structure is, unfortunately, unusual and significant (both cinematically and in the general context of historical accounts of the British monarchy), not least because director Lanthimos has enabled the film's woman-centrism to move through its every second.
Speaking to EW, for example, costume designer Sandy Powell commented, "Yorgos specifically said he wanted the women to have natural-looking faces and hair [...] He wanted them to have a natural, raw look about them, un-made-up, with the hair having a naturalness to it."
By contrast, Lanthimos had a different approach to the film’s men, who wear makeup and elaborate poodle-looking wigs, in accord with the fashion of the early 18th century, when the film is set. "Normally films are filled with men, and the women are the decoration in the background, and I’ve done many of those, so it was quite nice for it to be reversed this time, where the women are the centre of the film and the men are the decoration in the background," said Powell.
Women's centrality in The Favourite is perhaps best indicated by the number of occasions where we literally see the action through one of the three main characters' eyes. One of the most notable is a scene in which Masham dances with Sarah in front of Queen Anne. Initially, the infirm Queen – who cannot dance along with everyone else – is entertained, but as the sequence continues and she watches her lover engaging physically with this fit, striking young man, their moves becoming sillier and more ostentatious, she roars at them to stop.
The growing ridiculousness of the dance is certainly funny, but positioned as we are to see it from Anne's point of view, a sense of discomfort creeps in the longer it goes on. This duality – that of absolute power and total insecurity – is one that is always evident in Olivia Colman’s performance as Anne, and one which feels particularly relevant in a film so concerned with both artifice (formally, we’re constantly reminded that we’re being told a story by both Lanthimos's high stylisation and the chapter structure; narratively, the film is all about the power that lying and manipulation can yield) and womanhood.
In a definitive contemporary essay for MTV News, the writer and critic Meaghan Garvey suggests that a female gaze is one which sees past readings of performative "parody" in portrayals of women, and acknowledges that what is really on show is "the solemn pageantry of existence as a woman [...] the endless, self-contradicting farce of it all". Her words can be applied to The Favourite, and in particular, to Colman's Anne. Who, after all, is more steeped in pageantry than a female monarch?
At the very beginning of the film, Anne is chided by Sarah for her "badger"-ish makeup. The importance of appearances, therefore, is prioritised from the start – but throughout, Anne's layers of pomp fall away. Instead of her royal, overtly feminine finery, her costume for much of the action is a nightgown, and we discover a crucial vulnerability when it is revealed she has lost 17 children.
In breaking down this most layered of femininities, that of a queen – both outwardly and emotionally – The Favourite, in and with its own female gaze, is committed to exposing the rituals and expected aesthetics and emotions of womanhood to great payoff. It’s easy to lose yourself in the web of these characters because we are looking at them via a gaze that completely humanises them, which is still rare in mainstream English-language cinema. In subverting gender tropes at every level, therefore, The Favourite is maybe most delightful because it has a fresh perspective: one that is funny, cruel, tender and inherently female.