The story of director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is the story of Anne, Queen of England. It was during Anne’s early eighteenth-century reign that both England and Scotland were united and became Great Britain. She remained the queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland until her death in 1714. But that’s altogether a different story.
Politics and the joining of borders is not what The Favourite (English language spelling) is all about. It’s about the bitter rivalry of two women from the same family vying for the attention of a reigning monarch, each hoping to be the queen’s favorite, and each in their own way suffers as a result. One will be banished, the other will learn their place. The Favourite, in its brash, savage, and extremely fast-paced style, tells us what happened. Like Elphaba, as portrayed in this telling, these ladies are perfectly wicked.
When the film begins, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) has fallen on hard times. Because of her father’s fortune loss, Abigail is left penniless and no longer considered a member of society’s upper echelon. She’s forced to work as a servant. “I am a lady of honor,” Abigail insists, “Even if my station is not.”
The employment came from her cousin, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) who reached out to the family member and gave her work as a scullery maid in Queen Anne’s household. Historians have always believed this act of kindness was not entirely due to affection for the young woman. It was more out of family embarrassment. It’s doubtful that Sarah even knew who Abigail was until the tragedy occurred. “Go back to that gouty old slattern Mrs. Meg and tell her I said to give you quarters, food, and something to do,” Sarah instructs when Abigail first arrives. “And take your flies with you,” she adds as though intentionally letting the cousin know where she stood in the pecking order, dismissing the young woman.
At the time, Sarah was a close confidant and friend to Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman), the monarch’s current favorite. But because of her frequent absences, plus their political differences – Sarah was an active member of the Whig Party whose origins lay in the opposition to absolute monarchy, while the Queen favored the Tory Party and its adherence to religion – the Duchess would occasionally fall out of favor. Cue the young Abigail to see an opportunity and slowly rise in ranks from the kitchen to the position of Queen’s handmaiden, an avenue through which the girl, with some careful planning and a lot of cunning, could become the Queen’s new favorite. As Abigail will discover, one of the more creative ways to win a Queen’s heart is through her pet rabbits.
The events that unfold are based on fact; both Sarah and her cousin Abigail really did compete and go to damaging lengths to win the Queen’s affections. But whether they occurred in the way depicted in the film is pushing it. Director Lanthismos, whose previous works include Dogtooth and The Lobster, has in The Favourite made his most accessible mainstream film yet, but don’t be fooled into thinking that because this is a historical period piece of England’s royalty it’ll be replayed on Masterpiece Theatre anytime soon. Imagine a protégé of Ken Russell had decided to make his own costumed drama and used Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon as a visual template, then said, “Now, let’s rock ‘n roll,” you’ll be close to its style.
There are some issues. The chapter headings that quote a line of dialog separating scenes, as in This Mud Stinks or Leave That, I Like It are hardly enticing; they add nothing. Plus the film’s stylishly designed end credits are annoyingly difficult to read. And though the fish-eye lens is overused, with Robbie Ryan’s sumptuous cinematography, Yorgos Mavropsaridis’ sharp editing, and an equally sharp script with biting dialog full of delicious snark from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite is quite the elaborately designed thrill ride of an intelligently brazen and very adult comic-drama.
What strikes you the most, however, is not so much the film’s look or its style of present-day sensibilities in an eighteenth-century setting – there are plenty of f-bombs and worse – but the performances of the three central women, particularly Olivia Coleman (so good in TV’s Broadchurch) as the Queen.
From the film industry’s point-of-view, we’re currently in the middle of the voting season. This is where the majority of studio-considered quality material is held for release near the closing of the year in the hope of garnering enough consideration to earn a nomination for the oncoming award season. At a time when studios and movie-makers are vying for attention in the way Abigail and Sarah compete for Queen Anne’s, looking not only for a positive review but also a reviewer’s vote, The Favourite lives up to its title. Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Coleman, and the film itself already have mine.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 119 Minutes