Solitude is a strange emotion as it can be experienced even in the midst of a group of friends when the individual is not alone at all. A lot depends on how we regard the condition we are in. If we see ourselves as isolated or at one with others, or if we feel we are being sustained or abandoned in the face of difficulty. Whether this feeling is true or not, it ends up dictating both our mood and behaviour. In a scene in his film The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos uses light to recount the moment in which one of the characters feels suddenly alone, by showing how she sees herself.
Solitude is a strange emotion as it can be experienced even in the midst of a group of friends when the individual is not alone at all.
It’s late at night. Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the friend, lover and counsellor of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, Oscar 2019 winner for best actress) is running along the secret passage that connects her room to the queen’s. In one hand she is holding a candle that lights up her face while everything around her is completely dark. The darkness, of course, is unreal, as in the real world a lit candle would shed at least some light on the walls of such a narrow passageway. Sarah is isolated, then, against a petrol black background. She has always been alone, but up until this moment, she has moved with the sure step of a solitary Machiavellian political strategist who has consciously chosen this path for her life.
When she enters the queen’s room, however, a surprise awaits her as she finds Anne in bed with her personal assistant Abigail (Emma Stone). Two shots alternate here: a medium range shot of Sarah, who is clearly upset, and a frame of her subjective vision where she sees the two women sleeping in each other’s arms. This means we see Sarah on her own and Anna and Abigail together. If Lanthimos had chosen to show all three women together, the effect would not have been so powerful. The source of light is again Sarah’s solitary candle, but this time it illuminates Sarah much less than Anne and Abigail, even if they are more distant.
Rachel Weisz and Joe Alwyn dancing in The Favourite. Photographer: Atsushi Nishijima. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, All rights reserved
The search for an emotional and symbolic, rather than realistic effect succeeds in creating a sense of estrangement when Sarah turns and rushes away. She holds the candle in front of her, but it casts no shadow on Anne and Abigail. She then returns through the secret tunnel, but this time moving uncertainly as a result of this unaccustomed feeling of solitude as this fall from grace has put all her plans and power games at risk.
In a short, apparently simple scene with no dialogue, the director Yorgos Lanthimos and photography director Robbie Ryan have, therefore, succeeded in condensing a fundamental shift in the film’s plot by revealing certain subtle details about Sarah’s character and an implicit idea of the way in which our relationship with solitude is developed as a consequence of the position we see ourselves holding in the world.
Olivia Colman in The Favourite. Photographer: Atsushi Nishijima. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox - Film Corporation, All rights reserved