This story contains spoilers for the film The Favourite.
Yorgos Lanthimos’s 18th-century comedy-drama The Favourite, which collected a whopping 10 Oscar nominations on Tuesday, opens with a familiar tableau. Queen Anne, the reigning monarch of England (played by Olivia Colman), stands stock-still as her handmaidens unlatch a fur cloak. Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz)—the queen’s trusted friend, adviser, and lover—sits to the side and compliments her on a speech well delivered. The setting feels familiar, the characters well worn: Here is the monarch in her straight-backed splendor, and there is her sycophantic companion, prettily fawning.
But as Anne slips off her cloak, the timbre of the scene changes. The queen blindfolds Sarah and pushes her down a secret corridor that enjoins their rooms to surprise her with a gift. In the hallway, the duo stumble as they run, exuding a glee that feels girlish compared with their former composure. Their giggling dash shatters the staid formality often expected of prominent female figures, especially in British period films. The scene also signals that a more chaotic depiction of womanhood lies ahead for Anne, Sarah, and palace newcomer Abigail Masham (Emma Stone). Throughout The Favourite, the three women fight to seize and maintain power through various forms of royal-court intrigue. But understanding what makes these characters so compelling and distinctive requires noticing exactly how they navigate the physical space around them—how they move and how they walk.
Movement as a technique in acting is, of course, nothing new. But one particularly illuminating lens for looking at how Queen Anne and her companions carry themselves is the centuries-old art of Japanese Noh theater. Central to Noh theater is a skill known as suri-ashi, which is sometimes called “the art of walking.” Simply put, suri-ashi is a sliding walk that actors perform as a part of their character building. There are even certain accepted “walks” for different types of characters, implying that the audience ought to be able to ascertain the class, mood, and gender of a character just by watching a Noh actor’s feet. A hero, for example, walks with a wide stance and heavy footfalls. An elderly person limps, dragging one foot to the side.
Suri-ashi is especially crucial when it comes to conveying womanhood. Noh theater only began formally accepting female actors to its stage in the 1940s, and today it remains dominated by male performers who play female parts. To let the audience know that a woman was entering the scene, the actor’s gait had to adhere to a circumscribed notion of femaleness. A womanly gait in Noh is most often built of small, prim steps taken in a slightly pigeon-toed stance; this is meant to allow for a graceful sway of figure, making the character seem submissive and alluring. At its core, Noh and its usage of suri-ashi underline the idea that women are supposed to walk and move in a certain way in order to be viewed as women.
This message is certainly not unique to Noh. How many films has Hollywood made about girls becoming women, about women becoming ladies, that include instructional scenes detailing how one ought to move? Consider 2000’s Miss Congeniality, in which Sandra Bullock is berated by Michael Caine for carrying herself like a man, or 2001’s The Princess Diaries, in which Julie Andrews gives step-by-step instructions to her granddaughter on how a woman should walk (“Drop the shoulders … think tall”). These movies use aristocracy (or, in the case of Miss Congeniality, the faux aristocracy of a beauty pageant) as a framework for unruly female characters trying to learn how to best perform womanliness.
In The Favourite, Colman, Stone, and Weisz upend such rigid standards with their incredible, physical performances; it’s no wonder that all three received Oscar nominations for their roles. In the heady, lush world of the British court, it is obvious that Queen Anne, Sarah Churchill, and Abigail Masham are meant to be viewed as women, garbed as they are in the arch royal drag of furs, lace, and jewels. They visually telegraph their positions of female nobility, painted as exactly the kinds of people who would float from room to room. And yet, they do not move in the manner viewers might expect.
Instead, they stomp, gambol, splay their legs. They tumble down hillsides not in an elegant slump but in a slapstick heap. In one scene, Anne witnesses an orchestra playing in the courtyard. At first she’s delighted. But her joy quickly sours, causing her to take flight down the hall, screaming and sobbing hysterically. She weaves, careening into walls and window sills. Her trajectory is unpredictable, a direct contradiction to the stifling decorum of court behavior. In her portrayal of the queen, Colman also delivers an intimate performance of Anne’s many ailments, adopting affects of gout and stroke. Whether she’s hobbling through the court or speaking out of one side of a paralyzed mouth, Colman’s Anne illustrates discomfort and disability in excruciating detail not often seen on the big screen.
Weisz’s Sarah Churchill also moves in ways that seem transgressive but that distinguish her from Anne. She stalks from scene to scene, commanding and hawkish, more a general than a lady. Her costuming favors gamine, sportsmanlike attire, her hose and leggings allowing for her brassy stride. Sarah walks up to male politicians without averting her gaze, looming over them to forcefully make a point. But this isn’t the extent of her physical expressiveness. As Sarah falls from the queen’s favor, Weisz masterfully breaks her character down. We see Sarah walk the same corridor that she galloped through in the opening sequence. Only now she is alone and staggering. Her body drags to one side as she is met with Anne’s closed door, and her earlier sauntering has devolved into a pitiable shuffle.
It is Stone’s Abigail, however, who most clearly crystallizes the different ways motion can complicate how women are perceived in The Favourite. Though she will later win Anne’s affections, when Abigail is introduced, it seems impossible that she’ll measure up to Sarah’s bravado. At first, Abigail inhabits the stereotypical female body in motion: small, proper, trying not to take up too much space. If The Favourite were a Noh play, Stone would be executing the suri-ashi movements of a female role flawlessly: Abigail scurries behind her superiors, scrunching herself between carriage passengers and scullery maids sleeping on the floor. As she begins to worm her way into the queen’s good graces, though, her body language changes.
Midway through the film, Abigail invites the queen to dance, mirroring the monarch’s gestures and placing her body teasingly close to the royal. In another scene, Abigail is confronted by the man she will later marry, Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), in the woods. Instead of the expected seduction and tender sexual interlude, what follows is a punchy, vivid sequence: Abigail leaps and cavorts as Samuel lunges and misses. She is coy and edgy, stilling herself for what seems to be a kiss, only to knee Samuel in the groin, traipsing off in merriment. Her movements are broad, almost monstrous in their swagger. Later on, in a bid to cement herself in the queen’s favor, Abigail sprawls on the floor, her arms and legs kicked out in front of her like a cranky, overindulged toddler. Stone is expansive in this scene, taking up as much room as possible, hiccuping and crying. Of course, the queen takes pity on her, and Abigail gets her way; she remains in the palace, and her movements become only more and more audacious.
Stone’s portrayal of Abigail highlights the ineffective, constricted motion of men throughout the film. In The Favourite, male characters are mincing, wheedling, and heavily made-up, whereas the women mostly appear to be barefaced. Nicholas Hoult’s Lord Harley glowers and preens, and though initially he attempts to intimidate Stone’s Abigail, it is he who is physically cornered by her at the end of the film. Samuel tries to kiss Abigail, only to draw back, appalled, after she vigorously bites down on his bottom lip. Men seem to move only as afterthoughts; they’re more like shadow characters whose greatest service is to act as a passive foil to the dynamic activity of women.
Some might watch these performances and conclude that the women of The Favourite are meant to be seen as unwomanly, that they are Noh actors in reverse, conveying an uncanny maleness to embody power. But I’d argue that this isn’t the case. In interviews with cast members, Lanthimos appears to have spent a considerable amount of time in rehearsal focused on physical interaction. Colman, Weisz, and Stone were encouraged to run backwards into each other, to tie themselves into knots and pretzels. The goal of these exercises was, according to Stone, for the actors to be able to “sense each other without seeing each other,” suggesting the importance of developing an intuitive comfort with their own physicality.
Movement in The Favourite is as much about humor and action as it is a marker of authenticity. For all the film’s emphasis on deception and conniving, the characters’ body language often alerts the audience to a truth in the women’s interactions with one other—the jealousy, fear, desire, anger, betrayal, and love that they cycle through from scene to scene. This isn’t to say, then, that real women behave like Anne or Sarah or Abigail. Rather, portrayals like theirs contain refreshing range and complexity, giving the world of film (and beyond) more options for the ways women can take up, and move through, space.