Queen Anne furniture is distinguished by its lightness and elegance – one might even say ‘timeless elegance’, as it looks as fresh today as it did at the dawn of the 18th century. Queen Anne, who ruled from 1702-1714, was no match for the chairs and cabinets that bear her name. Obese, gouty, wracked by ill health, the Queen spent much of her reign being pushed around in a wheelchair with her legs wrapped in fllthy bandages. She had seventeen pregnancies but would die childless.
Had she been a commoner Anne would have found it hard to make friends, let alone idolators, but as monarch she never lacked for flatterers. In The Favourite Yorgos Lanthimos uses actual historical figures to ponder the advantages of being the Queen’s close confidante, and the sacrifices it entailed.
No character seems to escape unscathed from one of Lanthimos’s films, and The Favourite is no exception. Yet the bleak humour of The Lobster (2015) and the deep chill of The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), have given way to a sparkling costume comedy. The view of human nature presented in this film may be scabrous but there was rarely a scene when I didn’t feel my face forming a smile. Most of the humour is wry and cynical but there are moments of pure slapstick, and others that would do Luis Buñuel proud.
Of all contemporary directors Lanthimos has the best claims to being Buñuel’s cinematic son and heir. There may be no overt surrealism in The Favourite, but there’s plenty of absurdity. What shoud we make of the indoor duck races that thrill the noble gentlemen of the Court, or the Tories’ idea of fun, which is to throw rotten fruit at a fat, naked man in a periwig?
These are but two details that embellish a story in which historical fact is interwoven with shameless invention. If Queen Anne has been viewed as a weak, impressionable ruler this is partly due to a memoir penned by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough after she had fallen from Royal favour. Historians such as Edward Gregg have argued persuasively that Anne was not as stupid or pliable as Lady Sarah would have us believe.
In The Favourite, Olivia Colman, who has just taken over the role of Queen Elizabeth II for the third season of The Crown, plays Queen Anne as a tired, sickly invalid with a streak of cunning. She keeps 17 pet rabbits, one for each of the children she lost. There’s no sight of her husband, who may be presumed already dead.
Anne is completely under the thumb of Sarah (Rachel Weisz), a woman of enormous self-confidence and political ambition, who has installed her spouse as chief of the armed forces, and loses no opportunity to promote the interests of the Whigs (representing the mercantile classes) over the Tories, (drawn from the ranks of the large landowners). This is largely true, as Lady Marlborough was notorious for her influence over the Queen and her unladylike passion for matters of state.
The status quo is upset by the arrival of Sarah’s impoverished cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who has come down in the world because of her father’s love of gambling. Abigail is given a job as a kitchen maid, but tries to make herself useful to the Queen, even at the risk of treading on her cousin’s toes. The younger woman will work to ingratiate herself with the older, and ultimately take her place, in an echo of that Hollywood classic, All About Eve – although Bette Davis never taught Anne Baxter how to shoot pigeons.
It’s a tangled tale, with enough scheming, spying, treachery and cattiness to fill an entire mini-series. The language is coarse and explosive, the political intriguing is relentless, but the story is told with such gusto we hardly pause to ask what is true and what is false. The costumes are fantastic, with the males looking more “pretty” than the females. The music, by Purcell, Handel and err.. Elton John, is invariably used to make a point.
The real Sarah spread rumours about Abigail’s lesbian amours with the Queen while denying that she had been similarly engaged. In this movie, sexual favours are a natural part of both womens’ strategies. Script writers, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have taken all the salacious accusations and made them fundamental to the plot, as the rivals exploit the Queen’s need for affection.
The real Abigail is reputed to have been a more gentle personality than her cousin but in this film she is an opportunist who will stop at nothing. The male characters are uniformly vile or pathetic but they play only a supporting role in the high-stakes conflict between Sarah and Abigail. All three lead actresses turn in memorable performances.
As usual, Lanthimos uses the last scene of the movie to push us to the very edge of a precipice. We are left with a strong sense that for all the deathly struggles involved in becoming the Queen’s favourite, it may be a hollow triumph, if not a source of degradation. St. Mark said it best: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” In this betwitching, grotesque period piece, souls have been traded off long before the credits roll.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult, Mark Gatiss, James Smith, Joe Alwyn
Ireland/UK/USA, rated MA 15+, 119 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 5 January, 2019