During the PR campaign for this film, Rachel Weisz called it ”a funnier, sex-driven All About Eve”. Is there a better way to describe it? Hardly. There have been irreverent cinematic takes on the British royal family before, including The Madness of King George (1994), but this one perfectly illustrates the danger and insecurity of having an obviously unfit person ruling the country. You could almost see it as a commentary on Donald Trump’s presidency. Why should we be any different than the 1700s?
In the early 18th century, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arrives at the royal court to work as a servant. Fallen from grace due to her father’s speculations, she’s nevertheless related to Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who is Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) closest confidant – and she has ambitions. The Queen relies on Lady Marlborough completely for everything, including ruling Britain, and Abigail soon also learns to her astonishment that they are lovers.
She finds a way to become the temperamental and unhealthy Queen’s lady of the bedchamber, but Lady Marlborough is a formidable foe…
Lanthimos’s most accessible film
At the film’s Venice festival premiere, critics noted that this is Yorgos Lanthimos’s most accessible film (his first based on a script written by other people), and they were probably right. That doesn’t mean it’s a sell-out though; fans of the director will recognize his interest in people’s offbeat behavior and naked, raw emotions. It is also laugh-out loud funny, like Lanthimos’s The Lobster (2015); there are many hilarious moments as Abigail and Lady Marlborough compete over who should become Anne’s ultimate favorite.
The whole thing is dressed up very prettily, shot at the magnificent Hatfield House, with Sandy Powell’s costumes sometimes serving as an additional joke. Everybody is dressed the way the elite at this time are supposed to be dressed, but everything is also way over-the-top; these people deliberately come across as fops, fools and shameless schemers. My mentioning Trump might seem out of place, but The Favourite is not just a drama-comedy about the relationship between three women, but also a commentary and satire on the politics of those days, with politicians waging a pointless war on France while fighting to please an uneducated and disinterested monarch. The uselessness of this type of government is illustrated to great effect; Nicholas Hoult is particularly enjoyable as the wicked leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition.
But above all this film belongs to Stone, Colman and Weisz who are absolutely delightful as the women who dominate the royal court – the saucy servant, the deeply insecure and miserable queen and the confident lady and de facto ruler. The queen has gone though 17 pregnancies, but has no children and no heir; her grief is brilliantly portrayed by Colman as uncontrolled and debilitating. The story explores the women’s relationship and motivations, cleverly generating our sympathy first for the underdog, then for those whose romantic liaison may be real love after all.
Certainly more predictable and linear than anything Lanthimos has done before and probably far from historically correct, but The Favourite is immensely rewarding in many ways. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan found a suitable lens that gives the film a fish-eye perspective in many scenes, essentially capturing every grand detail in a shot but also creating a cramped look at the same time. Queen Anne, in particular, is truly a prisoner in this gilded world.
The Favourite 2018-Britain-Ireland-U.S. 119 min. Color. Produced by Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Yorgos Lanthimos, Lee Magiday. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Screenplay: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara. Cinematography: Robbie Ryan. Costume Design: Sandy Powell. Cast: Olivia Colman (Queen Anne), Emma Stone (Abigail Hill), Rachel Weisz (Lady Marlborough), Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, Mark Gatiss.
Trivia: Kate Winslet was allegedly first cast as Lady Marlborough.
Venice: Grand Special Jury Prize, Best Actress (Colman).
Last word: “I wanted to see if I could make a period film that felt different and fresh and original. We decided early on that we didn’t want to try to mimic how people spoke. With costumes, we tried to maintain the silhouettes, but we worked with a lot of contemporary materials – vintage denim, plastic, leather. Sometimes the music is loyal to the period; sometimes it’s contemporary. So there were all these added layers.” (Lanthimos, Esquire)