Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is deliberately, unsettlingly claustrophobic – all fish-eye queasiness and endless corridors. Yet it derives much of its brilliance from freedom. Freedom from slavish historical accuracy to drive home a timeless examination of the personal and political. Freedom from reverence for its royal subject. Most of all, freedom from tired gender tropes, with a script that could easily be sex-swapped with barely a word being changed. For Nicholas Hoult, there’s also a freedom that comes from knowing the film is not about him.
It’s still relatively unusual for a historical drama about women, even one about a queen, not to centre in some way on the men in her life – think Elizabeth’s lovers or Victoria’s late husband. The Favourite‘s female power play lifts that weight of expectation from both Hoult and the audience, and as a result he spends the entire film visibly enjoying himself.
Hoult’s bewigged and powdered Leader of the Opposition, Robert Harley, provides a brilliant baroque distraction; frequently more elaborately dressed than the monarch herself, he can’t help being obtrusively present in every scene he appears in. A tall physical presence beside the female leads, Hoult uses every inch of this to his advantage. As Harley piles on the pressure in parliament, Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne nervously fakes a fainting fit. And as she watches revels in her court, she shrinks, Alice-like, while Harley soars in stature, his wig seeming to scrape the ceiling as he looms over her. The character is unusually rich for a supporting role, oscillating gleefully from the ridiculous – hurling fruit at naked fellows for fun – to what he, at least, believes is sublime political manipulation.
Initially, Harley is unable to get much purchase with the steely Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), who mocks his running mascara and dismisses him as “a fop and a prat” who “smells like a 96-year-old French whore’s vajuju”. Then he comes head to head with the equally power-hungry Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), and that’s where Hoult really lets it off the leash. He sweeps through each scene dispensing cynicism (“favour is a breeze that shifts direction all the time”), disdain, and threats of violence.
The dialogue sparkles with the pure joy of two actors being given free rein, vying for the upper hand with a touch of grudging respect for each other’s ruthlessness. Abigail, at first hesitant, quickly discovers the breadth of her own ambition and learns to hold her own against him. Yet when Harley steers her out into the grounds to threaten her into spying for him, then with a brusque shove sharply sends her flying into a ditch, Hoult is handed one of the most viciously hilarious scenes of the whole film. Ha-ha indeed.
In a screenplay ripe with bawdy turns of phrase and glorious broadsides – many of them aimed at Harley – Hoult is also granted some of the finest lines. His delight in doling them out drips through his delivery, particularly in conversation with Abigail’s devoted swain Masham (Joe Alwyn), at whom Harley memorably fires the dismissive epithet “cuntstruck”.
Harley’s absurdity gives the film room to fire darts at the establishment, in the form of privileged white men littering the background as three magnetic queer women dominate the stage. And Hoult has the full measure of the joke. Direct barbs and deliberate slights seem to roll off him as easily as water from the racing ducks that clutter the court. It is perhaps Hoult’s investment in his character’s entitlement and ability to shrug off any and all humiliations that makes him so captivating, or at least captivatingly awful. Even when it’s clear that Abigail’s machinations have been to her own benefit as much as his, Hoult’s Harley remains the honey badger of Queen Anne’s court. And for all the ridicule hurled his way, by the end of the film Harley has been social climbing just as effectively as Hill – if not more so, given his independence from Queen Anne.
The Favourite remains a powerfully female film, granting its leads fully human roles to play. Their challenges are ones only a woman could face, but their responses, their personalities and their wit aren’t laced into restrictive stereotypes. But it’s precisely because of this properly rounded femininity that the film has no trouble making room for a male character like Robert Harley, equally unmoored from convention. And it’s Hoult’s straight-faced dedication to the ridiculous that makes him yet another delicious morsel in an embarrassingly rich feast.