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The Manipulations of Power in Yorgos Lanthimos’s ‘The Favourite’

© 2018 - Fox Searchlight
© 2018 - Fox Searchlight

At first glance, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite (2018) may appear to examine the relationships between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and two cousins, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) as the two compete to become Queen Anne’s court favourite. Yet, the competition-based narrative remains far from simple. As the fate-determining position of the favourite must become captured, the favourite, after all, is a title that is only fit for one. From here on, The Favourite explores the position of favouritism in a cunning fashion.

A chain of tension and fondness acts as a centerpiece for Anne, Sarah and Abigail’s relationships in The Favourite and these factors inevitably progress to disrupt states of power in the film. The Favourite subtly captures how any changes towards the stable state of power in Anne’s kingdom may lead to unforeseen consequences for the central characters. The introduction of Abigail collapses the fundamental forces at work in The Favourite and provides the film with the space to explore the themes of power and manipulation. Although a balance of power between Anne and Sarah is established and maintained at the start of the film, the fiercely developing competition for the position of Anne’s favourite, between Sarah and Abigail, disrupts this state.

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Sarah (left) and Queen Anne (right) in Anne’s bedroom. © 2018 – Fox Searchlight

Visible manipulations can identify the relationships The Favourite’s characters share as one character often uses another to meet their own needs and desires. From this position, The Favourite develops a complex system as its central characters are represented to pursuit any given opportunity to maintain and ensure a balance of power that benefits themselves entirely. Therefore, Anne, Sarah, and Abigail display how power can be utilized as a survival tactic and showcase what can happen when power is displaced and falls into the wrong hands through manipulation. This manipulation becomes visible once the characters are in positions where they can exude their control over one another. They do so to gain a competitive edge, and this is represented by how the characters are on a journey of grasping power.

Whether using power for the comforts it can provide, or gaining or losing a position of authority, The Favourite is set on depicting how its characters misuse power. As The Favourite moves from its light-hearted approach to adopting a more sinister, villainous nature, it presents how an obsession for power can mark your downfall. With developing schemes and competition that are credited by a hunger for power; The Favourite shows how its characters should never feel comfortable in their positions. Every element in The Favourite dealing with relationships aspects and social situations is subject to change because of the manipulations of power that become unearthed. With the themes of power and manipulation portrayed through the critical characters in The Favourite, each character gravitates between using their unique abilities over one another. At times, the film’s characters are also visibly set on contending with a series of power relations that are sometimes above them.

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Abigail. © 2018 – Fox Searchlight

SARAH’S FATE

Starting with Sarah, Anne’s original favourite, The Favourite shows how Sarah has reaped the rewards that being the favourite can bring. This privilege is due to the other power that the role of the favourite has granted Sarah. Sarah works as Anne’s advisor. She is seen in Anne’s throne room, with Anne, often making decisions on behalf of Anne in their counsel. The exchanges between Anne and Sarah dealing with matters of importance to the kingdom allow Sarah to set her agendas and sway Anne into doing her bidding, in a similar yet more delightful manner to the infamous Littlefinger of Game of Thrones. As Anne grows bored of ruling and using the power that comes with her position of Queen, Sarah takes over due to her relationship with Anne and rules behind Anne’s image. As Sarah makes decisions for Anne, it displays that Sarah is not only advising Anne but commanding Anne to make decisions that suit Sarah’s best interest and approval.

Sarah represents a character where power is not an obstacle to overcome. Sarah does not need to gain any further satisfaction or control because, from the position that Sarah is in, Sarah has all that she could ask. As Sarah manipulates Anne’s ill health and frustration of governing, Sarah is ultimately able to maintain a close relationship to the Queen and gain power. This manipulation provides Sarah more agency to not only become a more powerful figure politically but more potent than the Queen to an extent. Whereas you would think that a Queen possesses more power over an advisor, Anne’s vulnerability allows Sarah to influence and manipulate Anne. Therefore, Sarah is then in charge of not only Anne but the country as Sarah possess the power to remain undoubted by Anne.

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Sarah. © 2018 – Fox Searchlight

In Sarah’s case, her main contention with power remains in how she must compete to maintain the balance of power that she has created. Sarah must stay in the position of Anne’s favourite as she does not possess a satisfactory role outside this position, which The Favourite makes clear as Sarah liaison’s with her husband who does not hold much significance to her. As the favourite, Sarah represents how a character may survive by manipulating a vulnerable character’s dominant position and situation to better themselves. However, Sarah is now at risk of losing her prized job if she does not conserve the power she has gained. As Sarah has so far ceased to have her position of Anne’s favourite undermined, the comforts of power and smooth running of operations Sarah has produced are about to disappear. Sarah is played at her own game by Abigail and gets removed from the game-board. The competition between Sarah and Abigail sees Sarah and Anne’s shared passions die as Abigail’s madness takes over. Sarah loses not only Anne but her power to conserve herself and the country.

THE RISE AND FALL OF ABIGAIL

Abigail becomes Sarah’s downfall due to how Abigail represents a character using their strengths and power to survive. Abigail states she has become poor as her father gambled away her previous comforts and status of power and wealth. From Abigail’s position, attempts become made to grasp the situation that she was in previously by ensuring her prior status becomes restored. On a quest to re-establish her status, Abigail, through observing the power dynamics in Sarah and Anne’s relationship, learns that she could become Anne’s favourite and reap its rewards, as do The Favourite’s viewers. From her powerless position, matters cannot get any worse for Abigail, so she becomes a contender for the position of the favourite to meet her desires. From observing Sarah and Anne, Abigail learns how to further survive in her new environment and how to replace Sarah.

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Anne bonding with Abigail. © 2018 – Fox Searchlight

Contrasted against the position of powerlessness Abigail arrives in where she falls out of a carriage to become slathered in mud and seeks nothing but employment, Abigail represents a character where power is an obstacle that must be overcome to gain any bearings. Abigail becomes filled with envy because of the power position her cousin is in, and to gain leverage, Abigail needs to manipulate and plot herself onto the playing field to reacquaint herself with her previous lifestyle. The Favourite represents Abigail’s conflict with power by depicting her in a lower social position to those she is surrounded by and aspiring to become once again. Abigail eventually manipulates the social status of Sarah, the one that she contends with the most, to ultimately grow closer to Anne to achieve power. Abigail’s progression gets credited by using her skills of knowledge and wit to survive and make her objectives. She transpires from working in the kitchen to orchestrating herself a marriage, which leads Abigail to climb the social ladder. Although Sarah punishes Abigail’s progression for gaining the power to showcase her own, Abigail maintains a cover of using her capabilities, ones that Sarah does not possess, to feed herself into Anne’s presence.

However, Abigail’s growing obsession for power is what strikes a downfall for everyone. Abigail’s only wish is to be consumed by the material gains that power can bring and does nothing to conserve it. Abigail’s survival instincts and lust for security place her in a position where she becomes manipulated by the wrath of power as she uses power as a tool to secure her social status. The Favourite represents this through Abigail deceiving Sarah and Anne to overcome the barriers of authority before her, and ultimately betraying them both. But, as Abigail possesses no passion for Anne like Sarah does, and becomes seen cruelly stepping on the film’s beloved rabbits, Abigail neglects Anne and tries to be rid of Sarah, even going as far as poisoning her, to becomes indirectly appointed as Anne’s favourite.

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Abigail. © 2018 – Fox Searchlight

ANNE’S EQUILIBRIUM

As Abigail causes suffering in Anne and Sarah’s relationship, Anne’s emotional state causes her not to see clearly. As Anne feels powerless by being alone and hides from responsibility as the power it brings bares too much, and so can Anne’s actions, Anne fails to see past Abigail’s manipulations of power. Anne thinks that Sarah is merely trying to make her jealous by disappearing as part of a malicious act as Anne grows closer to Abigail. Anne becomes fraught with fear that she may be abandoned once more and attempts to reserve her power by trying to please Abigail so that Abigail will stand by her for a new relationship to blossom. Instead of seeing Abigail as purely manipulative, Anne remains reluctant to reconcile with Sarah. Once Sarah realizes the power of the game that Abigail is playing, and confronts Anne with this knowledge, Anne remains fearing Sarah may abandon her.

Nevertheless, Anne transitions to become represented as regaining knowledge of the power that she holds as Anne portrays a complicated position where isolation and fear can come to represent most actions that people may take. Notably, these actions may be to secure a comfortable position that can ensure a benefitting balance of power, which The Favourite represents throughout its narrative. However, Anne also represents how manipulations of power can often go unnoticed when it is too late, and there is nothing left to save. The power relations in The Favourite since deteriorate. As Anne does not possess the power to see past her manipulations, Sarah also gives up her position of power by leaving the country, signaling that there will be no comeback for any of the characters to make.

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Anne in royal attire. © 2018 – Fox Searchlight

The Favourite ends with Anne frustrated, alone in bed trying to adapt and contend with Abigail’s exact nature surfacing, now that Sarah has left because of Abigail’s treachery. Anne is now in a position where she must reserve her state of power. Abigail may have been able to overpower Sarah, but Anne ensures that the same will not happen to her. Anne uses her power to place Abigail back into a position where she has no power, now like Sarah, as Abigail must succumb to Anne’s demand of a leg rub to ease her pain. The Favourite becomes set on highlighting the nature of betrayal between the three characters, leaving no one victorious. Inevitably, as true nature always surfaces, The Favourite lingers as it makes it apparent that manipulations of power and power relations are doomed to become a repeated cycle.

Read FilmEra’s official review of  The Favourite here

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