This film review of “The Favourite” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 10 January 2019 in a slightly shorter form.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos; written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara; starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn
“The Favourite” is a bawdy comedy-drama from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) set during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714). Lanthimos specialises in off-kilter worlds; here he has created a world of insider court intrigue, deceit, manipulation and sex, especially lesbian sex.
Queen Anne ruled during a time of political turmoil and change, with bitter rivalries between Whigs and Tories, and ongoing military actions against both France and Spain. The film is set not long after the death of Anne’s husband the Prince of Denmark (1708), and Anne is perpetually in a foul mood, exacerbated by increasing poor health: she suffered from severe gout and a number of other medical problems, could hardly walk and is usually pushed around in a wheelchair.
The film extrapolates, with significant poetic liberties, from the acknowledged intimate relationship that Anne (played by an almost unrecognisable Olivia Colman) had with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Jewish actress Rachel Weisz), who becomes the Queen’s closest advisor. The two call each other by pet names – Mrs. Morley and Mrs. Freeman – apparently as a means of establishing a level of equality between them. A competitor arrives in the person of Sarah’s first cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). Although down on her luck and fortune – Abigail is literally thrown into the mud from a carriage outside the palace in an opening scene – through careful scheming and attentiveness to Queen Anne’s infirmities, Abigail becomes a power player in the court.
Without its trio of acclaimed female performances – Colman, Weisz and Stone – this film could have become a mash-up of seedy British monarchy stories. The performances are astonishing, lively, energetic, funny, lusty, erotic and frequently nasty. All three have been nominated for Golden Globes, a feat likely to be repeated at the Oscars, with the film and director also in competition for major awards.
Satiric spoofs on the foibles of the British political and social upper classes have rarely been as cutting as this. Palace residents and courtiers are breathtakingly out of touch with what’s happening in the world, preferring to race ducks, shoot pheasants and bombard each other naked with fruit.
“The Favourite” also operates as a form of revisionist history: these three women appear to be the most powerful people in Britain, with many men clamouring – often fruitlessly – for the attention of their monarch. The men are dressed absurdly, with long wigs and bizarre make-up. England is at war – a fact that Queen Anne occasionally forgets – and senior members of the Parliament and the army seek her approval on war strategy and financing the war effort; in both areas, Anne is way out of her depth.
“The Favourite” includes delightful lines, such as when Abigail greets a nobleman who has come to her room unannounced: “Have you come to rape me or seduce me?” “Madam, I am a gentleman,” he responds. “Rape me then,” she replies.
The film also presents as tragicomedy: Queen Anne keeps 17 rabbits in her chambers, each of them affectionately named, representing her 17 lost children, most of them by miscarriage. In poor health and growing obese, Anne eats whatever and whenever she pleases, simply vomiting into a pitcher when she is full. Prospective viewers are forewarned: under its comedy, “The Favourite” has a hard and cynical edge; these players are angling for power and the stakes are high.