There has been a lot of hype about Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest movie The Favourite. A historical period piece set in the court of English Queen Anne (1665–1714), the last of the Stuart monarchs, the film is as far removed from his previous offerings (The Lobster, The Killing of Sacred Deer and Dogtooth) as you can get. The Favourite does share some common themes with his other films though: power, greed, obsession, isolation, alienation and betrayal.
The Favourite is loosely based on a true story and explores the changing power dynamics and relationships between three female protagonists: Queen Anne, (Olivia Colman); and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone).
Sarah was Anne’s childhood companion and confidante. When Anne became queen in 1702, the Duchess of Marlborough was among those she brought with her to court. Granted all the major posts in Anne’s royal household, she occupied a position of huge authority which she used to wield to the advantage of her preferred political faction, the Whigs. She is the Queen’s right hand as well as her lover. The duchess’s pre-eminence at court and friendship with the queen seems unshakeable. Her position becomes threatened by the sudden arrival of Abigail Masham, the duchess’s cousin who has hit hard times. On realising the nature of the relationship between the queen and Sarah, Abigail uses sex, lies, and manipulation to climb the ladder to power. The Favourite dramatises the contest for the monarch’s favours, with tragic consequences.
When we meet Queen Anne, she is in a vulnerable position. She is misunderstood, plagued by gout and haunted by the loss of the seventeen children she has borne, none of which survived. She has basically abdicated the responsibility of running the country to Sarah. When Abigail applies a herbal folk remedy to sooth the queen’s gout, not to mention her flattery of the queen, Anne takes an interest. Abigail eventually usurps Sarah from the queen’s bed and favour. What we see is a constant dance between who amongst these three women is really in charge. Ultimately Anne understands that she has been cruelly manipulated and betrayed by both rivals for her affection, and acts decisively, even if it means that she will end up alone.
The Favourite puts the focus on what happens in the interior world of the court, in the queen’s boudoir and the private back stairs. It puts female politics at the heart of every scene, and the economic, political and cultural issues of the early 18th Century are virtually ignored. The male politicians in this story, from the Prime Minister to Sarah’s husband, the Duke of Marlborough, are made to look ridiculous and foppish, in their absurd wigs, peacock finery and high heels, more interested in gambling in goose races and drinking games. It is the women who hold all the cards and are not afraid to deal them.
The Favourite is deserving of all the awards and accolades bestowed on it. It is not 100% historically accurate, but few period dramas are. It is true, though, that Queen Anne did have a sexual relationship with both Abigail and Sarah. Whether they were sincere in their desire or simply using sex as a way to secure their own advancement, we can only surmise.
There are a few anachronisms and the completely gorgeous costumes, whilst inspired by the shapes of the era, are of the 21st Century. Rachel Weisz looks fetchingly butch in her riding and shooting attire. The cinematography using the wide angle fish lens is somewhat disconcerting at first, but the distortions it provides does eventually make some sense. Various reviewers have described the film as a “punk Restoration romp’, and an “outrageous period comedy”, but to do so is a misrepresentation. Anyone expecting a comedy will be sorely disappointed. Although there are some very funny scenes, this is a rather dark drama. The reviewer who called The Favourite a “misanthropic baroque costume drama” hit the nail on the head. It is often horrifying in its rawness and deeply engaging throughout its two hour duration. The three leading actresses give stupendous performances, but Olivia Coleman stands out as the tragic, spoilt, capricious, manipulated Queen Anne.
The Favourite is currently on circuit in South Africa.