Queen Anne is a British monarch often overlooked, dismissed, forgotten. I’m into my history and I would have struggled to tell you much about her reign before watching THE FAVOURITE. The film isn’t a history lesson, that’s not what writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos is setting out to produce, but it does accurately reflect the cutthroat nature of being a courtier and the horribleness of life at every level, more often than not in a hugely entertaining fashion.
1708, with Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) frequently indisposed by poor physical and mental health, Britain’s matters of state are handled by Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the Queen’s closest advisor, friend and lover. Lady Sarah uses her position of power to further her own aims, keeping her family in influential positions and her rivals in check, all the while professing her unconditional love of her monarch. When Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a lady fallen on hard times arrives at court, a bitter rivalry begins.
The film doesn’t flinch at depicting the harsher aspects of early 18th Century life, from high mortality rates and rife disease to women being sold to settle gambling debts, and yet this still a properly funny film. The farcical situations, the silly visuals (both perhaps only slightly exaggerated from reality) and rapid-fire poetic swearing really tickled my funny bone. Emma Stone even gets to deploy a bit of silent movie-style physical comedy as she tries to sneak out of a room undetected at one point.
How can you possibly pick between the three lead performances when they’re so different from one another and all fit their own specific purpose? Olivia Colman may be central to The Favourite as the tragic woman-child queen, and yet it’s not really Anne’s story. Rachel Weisz is the most mesmerising she’s been in years as Anne’s confidant/lover/power-behind-the-throne Lady Sarah and Emma Stone plays Abigail as a ruthless and unlikeable manipulator who has every reason to have turned out the way she has. Lady Sarah plays dirty but Abigail plays dirtier. As great as Colman is portraying a grand figure decayed by grief, Weisz and Stone’s battle of wills is the fireworks display that you’ll really remember.
Perhaps never else in the history of the British monarchy were women so powerful and singular a force. After all, Queens Mary and Elizabeth I’s closest advisors were men. Sarah Churchill is the key difference in this period at court, the woman holding all the cards, and she is easily the most fascinating presence in the film. Representing the duck-racing, politically impotent buffoons of Parliament is Nicholas Hoult’s opposition leader Harley. Hoult must have had such fun playing an absolute cad among cads. They really should bring that old-timey insult back.
Directors who shoot period films with natural light don’t make it easy for themselves. The Favourite does indeed look great, the halls of Anne’s palace (real locations, though not the real locations) made to look both grand and grimy, spacious and imprisoning for the court’s inhabitants. The visuals and soundscape are designed to elicit particular responses in the viewer, fish-eye lenses and gnawing, repetitive musical notes accompany characters’ emotional and psychological breaks.
As I’ve said, this isn’t a history lesson but uses historical trappings to tell a good story. Several times the film seems to pause to wink, to throw something so anachronistically out there at you that you’re left sure there is another point being made. The lavish, detailed costumes look more than a little fantastical, and midway through a night of merriment at court, Lady Sarah busts out what can only be described as breakdancing moves. I’d expect nothing less surreal from the director of THE LOBSTER.
It’s probably the best film exploring the idea of control and manipulation I’ve seen since EX MACHINA. It’s all about the shifting balance of power and the dirty tactics used to retain a position of influence, whether your motivation be ambition, self-preservation, selfishness, love or a combination. Also like Alex Garland’s android chamber piece, this tale of a constantly shifting balance of power ends in a way that can be interpreted in several ways. I think I’d have to see it again but for now I’m struggling to make total sense of it, but I was utterly enthralled by the story that brought me there. SSP