Review by Russell Whitehouse
All’s fair in love and war, so goes the saying…Yorgos Lanthimos delivers his most topical film yet with The Favourite. Reuniting with Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz, and recruiting Emma Stone for the ride, Lanthimos delivers a film that delivers far more than audiences are used to in British costume dramas.
Colman stars as the 18th century British Queen Anne. She’s stricken by both illness and by the War of the Spanish Succession. Luckily, she has as her right-hand woman Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz), whose cunning and leadership was inherited by her descendant Winston Churchill. So happy is the Queen with Sarah, that she literally gives her the keys to the castle, both literally and figuratively. Sarah is also gifted with the servitude of her cousin Abigail Hill (Stone), a lady who lost her fortune and is thus at the mercy of the Queen’s court.
Queen Anne is a ruler beset by indecision, which is exacerbated by gout and moments of insanity. This allows Sarah to fill in the void, through sheer force of personality. The Duchess frequently meets with MPs on the Queen’s behalf and influences her decisions by whispering in her ear. Further tying Anne to Sarah is a romance that sometimes borders on abusive.
This dynamic gets upset by the introduction of Abigail to the court. Though she’s originally treated as a knave to be whipped at any sign of transgression, Abigail quickly works her way into the Queen’s favor. Anne appreciates her for being everything that Sarah is not: kind, submissive and uninterested in politics. A nasty battle ensues between cousins Abigail and Sarah for the position of the Queen’s “Favourite.”
Trying to dissect the intentions and personalities of the three actors is a real delight, like trying to see past the layers of gowns, wigs and makeup worn by the courtiers. The Queen (in a testament to Olivia Colman’s acting chops) can flip from fearsome, to helpless, to sage, to deadlocked in an instant. Anne genuinely seems to want to be the best ruler possible, but is emotionally crippled by the death of her 17 children. By contrast, it’s much harder to tell what motivates Sarah. In public, she speaks with soaring patriotic rhetoric, but privately she seems much more concerned with securing glory for her family and victory for her beloved Whig Party.
Further muddying things is the fact that she ardently tries to expand British involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession, which her husband is risking his life fighting in. Her cousin Abigail likewise is a very ambiguous figure. At the film’s start, she is portrayed as very sweet and shy. Once Abigail falls in the Queen’s favour however, she seems to undergo a shift. It’s hard to tell if this is real character development, or if Abigail’s been playing 3-dimensional chess the whole time…Though she drops a hint at one point, telling a story about what she did right after her family lost their fortune.
It’s fascinating how the personal intrigue of the court spills over into the official business of the court. Abigail, confidant of the Whig Prime Minister and Sarah, a reluctant ally of the Tory Party leader, become proxies for and against ending the War of the Spanish Succession. Each lady tries to win the Queen over to their side through charm, sabotage and backroom deals.
Critics of President Trump will no doubt see an analogous figure in Queen Anne: obese, neutered by flattery, manipulated by advisors, swamped by partisan jockeying & prone to insane outbursts. The courtiers’ political debates about war, taxation and the clash between the wealthy and the nation likewise feel incredibly timely. If there’s one thing we can learn from the film, it’s the danger of centralizing rule to one person, who can be puppeteered by a small circle of yes-men.
The Favourite is a film unlike any you’ve ever seen about the British Crown. It’s smart, sexy, haunting and funny, to the point of utter blasphemy (if you didn’t like the vomit scene in Bridesmaids, avoid this film!). It’s illuminating learning about the women, largely ignored by the history books, who shaped the future of Europe from behind the scenes. There have been some recent films and shows about how women of royal courts used their sexuality to manipulate the men nominally in charge…but this may be the first one to cover how Ladies seduced each other.
Though we must take the film’s portrayal of Queen Anne’s lesbianism with a huge grain of salt. The main evidence we have of romance between Anne and Abigail was gossip started by an embittered Sarah, who had an axe to grind with the Queen after the events depicted in the film ended. Similarly, the main evidence we have for an affair between Anne and Sarah were some loving (though not sexual) letters that they sent each other. Such correspondence must be judged by the intra-female norms of the time, not modern standards. We will never know for sure whether Queen Anne’s relationships with her “favourites” was romantic in nature, but it’s exhilarating and thought-provoking to watch The Favourite’s fictional take on this slice of history.