clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

For Your Consideration: ‘The Favourite’ Is a ‘Phantom Thread’ Prequel

And, not coincidentally, one of the most delightful movies of the year

Fox Focus/Ringer illustration

The Favourite is not a movie that cries out for comparison, at least to films that aren’t All About Eve. The party line put forward in its Oscar narrative–advancing Hollywood Reporter cover story is that the Yorgos Lanthimos project “ain’t your mother’s costume drama,” a summary that checks out well enough: How many prestigious period pieces feature a member of Parliament giving his cane a hand job, or another frolicking naked while his colleagues pelt him with fruit, or an absolute, divinely sanctioned monarch stuffing herself with cake until—and after—she vomits?

There is, however, at least one costume drama The Favourite puts in mind. Like The Favourite, it’s the uncompromising and unmistakable product of an old-school auteur; like The Favourite, it looks enough like an Oscar Film™ to earn attention and likely nominations, but has enough idiosyncrasies to hinder its awards momentum; like The Favourite, the plot is a veritable conveyor belt of hashtaggable #lewks. That movie would be Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, a story so strange and spellbinding I never dreamed we’d see another movie like it. Instead, less than a calendar year later, Lanthimos has delivered its spiritual prequel.

Some of the parallels between Phantom Thread and The Favourite are amusing coincidences; other similarities to one of the best films of 2017 go to show why The Favourite is one of the best of 2018, for reasons including but not limited to the aforementioned puking. Dear reader, it’s time to get all Charlie Day in this tastefully appointed British drawing room.

Exhibit A: Setting

The Favourite is ostensibly set in the early-18th century court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), England’s—and, as of her tenure, Scotland’s—last Stuart ruler. This already means The Favourite technically takes place in the same reality as Phantom Thread, because Phantom Thread is set in England. Constantly shifting emotional power struggles can have shared universes, too!

That said, The Favourite and Phantom Thread enjoy a similarly tenuous relationship between their story and their inspiration. Phantom Thread’s Reynolds Woodcock contains trace elements of real-life couturiers Charles James and Cristóbal Balenciaga, but ultimately stands as his (and Anderson’s, and Daniel Day-Lewis’s) own creation. For their part, The Favourite writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara based their script on actual entanglements between Anne, her childhood best friend and trusted deputy Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), née Hill, an impoverished cousin of Churchill’s who social-climbed her way from chambermaid to Churchill’s replacement.

But strategic omissions and additions put The Favourite in a timeline of its own. Sarah’s many children, from whom future prime minister Winston was descended, are left out entirely, as is Anne’s husband. The movie ends with Sarah—300-year-old history spoiler!—exiled from England, but declines to disclose that she outlived both Anne and Abigail by several decades after returning to her native country just a few years later. And last but not least in the “artistic license” department, there’s a whole lot of lesbianism!

Exhibit B: British Character Actresses

Colman is the kind of British TV institution you recognize from that gloomy detective show hogging all the space on your parents’ DVR, or that niche comedy the self-identified “humorist” you dated in college forced you to watch Clockwork Orange–style. Lesley Manville, who plays Cyril, has long-standing relationships with auteurs like Mike Leigh, but also takes roles in outrageous sex worker office comedies because she has bills to pay. For The Favourite, Colman got to pull the A-List Actor Move of gaining 35 pounds for her role (and juggle two younger love interests); for Phantom Thread, Manville got to tell Daniel Day-Lewis to shut up in multiple, rather inventive ways. We stan a deserving stalwart getting her due!

Exhibit C: Actual Characters

Phantom Thread is a game with three players: Reynolds, the exacting, coddled genius; Cyril, his sister and business partner; and Alma, the disruptive force who enters Reynolds’s life as his muse, then cements her place within it as his wife. Alma’s outsiderdom is both figurative and literal: she’s an immigrant and, Anderson has confirmed, a Jew, allowing a reading of the film—mine—as a sort of ode to the Jewish mother. Portnoy’s Complaint is shaking.

The Favourite, too, is a three-way tug-of-war, with roles that map onto Phantom Thread’s with startling ease. Anne, by default, is the Reynolds of the group, the emotionally stunted center of gravity around whom everyone else must revolve. Sarah is the longtime devotee who maintains the force field, as well as her exclusive right to puncture it. (Their pet names act as their credential: Cyril is “my old so-and-so” and, on one memorable occasion, “my little carnivore”; Sarah is the relatively innocuous “Mrs. Freeman.”) Abigail is the young, fresh-faced interloper who proves much savvier than she first appears.

To further emphasize these relationships, both movies strip away all other meaningful characters, unless you count that poor doctor Reynolds tells to fuck off, and isolate the central trio at a single location. What with all the duck racing and rabbit-child-surrogate raising, The Favourite’s physical constraints barely register among its eccentricities; palaces, by their nature, are very large and internally varied, even if Anne barely ever leaves hers. But a war (of the War of Spanish Succession, to be exact) is repeatedly mentioned and pointedly never shown, while Lanthimos takes care to emphasize the cavernous, echoing nature of the rooms these women spend their days in. It’s a good deal more spacious than the Woodcock residence-workshop-showroom on Fitzroy Square, but it’s a similarly confined space to trap a bunch of personalities in and play them off each other.

Exhibit D: Poison

Mushroom-borne toxins play a, er, decisive role in helping the Reynolds-Alma relationship reach an equilibrium. The nastiness Abigail slips into Sarah’s tea may not strike the killing blow, either literal or figurative, but it does lead directly to a striking shot of Rachel Weisz falling off her horse and getting dragged through the literal dirt. If I’m putting my feminist theory hat on, I’d say both films use poison to show women exerting power in nontraditional ways, using their confinement to the domestic sphere to their own advantage. If I’m channeling my inner 12-year-old, I did not expect poop jokes in the middle of my candlelit Hitchcock homage! (Sarah calling Abigail a cunt is less surprising, though equally enjoyable.)

Exhibit E: Kink!

This is what truly excites me about fusty Academy voters fishing what looks like some old-fashioned palace intrigue out of their screener pile, and before that, the man who gave us The Lobster getting the chance to besmirch the legacy of a real-life royal. When it comes to exactly what ties these women together, The Favourite is often grotesque and absolutely never shy: from Sarah’s actual, if dubious, allegation that pious Anne and mild-mannered Abigail may have been conducting an affair, The Favourite extrapolates a full-on love triangle, though the violence and calculation of it make “love” something of a misnomer. Anne commands Sarah to fuck her while Abigail watches from the shadows. Abigail uses a gout massage as cover to do the same, right in front of some palace guards. When Sarah asks Anne to dismiss Abigail, she flatly denies the request on the grounds that “I like it when she puts her tongue inside me,” which might be the new “Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick.”

But The Favourite’s sexuality isn’t remarkable for its mere presence—it’s the way Lanthimos uses it as a slippery, ever-shifting expression of where his three pillars stand. Sarah and Anne’s relationship is by far the trickiest to pin down, and therefore the most absorbing to watch: Sarah flatly informs Anne she looks like a badger in one moment, transparently flatters her in the next, then tenderly consoles her through a gout flare-up, then literally grabs her by the pussy in a fit of sexual jealousy. At first, Abigail’s connection with Anne is a sweeter, less complicated one, which helps her to gain the upper hand over her rival. But by the film’s final scene, Anne, having picked up on her new favo(u)rite’s ulterior motives, forces Abigail to prostrate herself in equally loaded, erotic ways. Anne’s juvenile tendencies add an extra layer of eeriness, combining the whims and self-control of a child with the power, and desires, of an adult.

Phantom Thread is a less overtly amorous film than The Favourite; part of what distinguishes Alma and Reynolds’s bond is the way it defies, and arguably transcends, straightforward sexual attraction. Still, it’s an equally disorienting watch: Cyril starts almost incestuously protective of her brother, then ends in an unspoken alliance with Alma, while the precise moment Reynolds turns from resisting Alma’s force to loving her for it is hard to identify, because it doesn’t really exist. All those jokes about BDSM aren’t really jokes.

I like Phantom Thread and The Favourite for their eye-popping costume design and withering one-liners. I love them for their ability to capture human connections at their least categorizable and most fraught. The scenarios they depict aren’t exactly relatable, but they do feel like a realistic outcome of subjecting actual people to a pressure cooker of enclosed space, inflated ego, preposterous amounts of money, and a borderline-sadistic screenwriter. They’re the date-night double feature from hell.