With a title which increasingly describes its Oscars prospects, The Favourite takes us back 300 years and plays out an intense political and romantic triangle in the British royal court between Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz’s Lady Sarah and Emma Stone’s Abigail. Posters for The Favourite all show Olivia Colman resplendent in her ermine robes – the words “period drama” come to mind and the prospective filmgoer is filled with certain expectations. In reality Colman spends most of her screen time in a nightgown and it turns out this film has far more to it. Director Yorgos Lanthimos takes all the decadence and spectacle of Queen Anne’s court in the early eighteenth century and strips it back to the story of three women, played by a flawless trio of actors.
That is not to say that the decadence and spectacle is not worth talking about. The sumptuous production design is the perfect balance to Sarah and Abigail’s increasingly ugly battle for the Queen’s favour. The palace is a perfect bubble, the characters giving little thought to the very real consequences of their decisions as they eat, drink and dress to excess. The walls of the Queen’s bedchamber are covered from floor to ceiling in tapestries, making the room feel claustrophobic and there are very few scenes that do not take place within the palace or with its hulking presence in the background. The film begins as Abigail arrives at the palace, seeking work after falling on hard times, but the films suggests that life as the Queen’s favourite is not a liberating one.
All the grandeur of the court does not make for a stiff costume drama however, as there is a strong sense of the characters as real people with real challenges and desires. Combined with cinematography that is filled with close-ups and low angles, and almost entirely devoid of any artificial lighting, The Favourite makes the past feel real, not mythical.
In terms of its historical accuracy, the film rarely depicts events that are demonstrably incorrect, but goes far beyond what is known. The phrase “artistic licence” is often used disparagingly, but The Favourite reminds us that it’s called “artistic licence” because it allows people to make better art. The film fills in the gaps between the historical record, speculating on what might have happened. It is unlikely that Queen Anne had any lesbian relationships, but the possibility makes for a fascinating story. Unlike films that deal with more recent history and must tread carefully, The Favourite is not afraid to play around with its subject.
Another welcome surprise from The Favourite is just how funny it can be. Lanthimos gives the film a surreal, playful edge which pops up when you least expect it. The leading politicians of the age, the men who are supposed to be running the country, are first introduced cheering on their pet ducks in a heated race round a drawing room. The image is so bizarre that it takes several moments to work out what you are looking at. Lanthimos establishes an interesting comparison between the frivolous attitude of the men of the film, whose status is guaranteed by land and money, and the desperation of Sarah and Abigail whose status depends entirely on the Queen’s favour. The relationship between Weisz’s brutally honest Sarah and Colman’s childish Anne also allows for some unexpected humour. When Colman emerges to meet the Russian ambassador having proudly applied her own make-up, Weisz says simply “You look like a badger,” and sends her back to her room.
At the centre of all the ridiculous fashions and squabbling ministers lies Queen Anne, Lady Sarah, and Abigail. It is on these three performances that The Favourite ultimately rests and they do not disappoint. Everyone has been talking about Colman’s performance and she deserves all the praise she receives. However, the Oscar nominations that place her in the Best Actress category and her co-stars in Best Supporting Actress is misleading. The story pays attention to the three women in equal parts – it is about the shifting relationships between them rather than any one person. The real thrill of the film is watching these three actors adjust their performances subtly depending on who they are talking to, giving hints as to their real motives but always leaving us uncertain. Colman appears lost, unsure how to behave. At times she is a petulant, childish Queen of Hearts, at times she seems to revel in pitting Sarah and Abigail against each other, and at times she is simply a broken woman grieving for seventeen pregnancies that all ended in tragedy. Stone meanwhile gradually lifts back her naïve façade to reveal an unforgiving steeliness underneath. To me however, Weisz might have given the most engaging performance of all. Lady Sarah is delightfully threatening and manipulative yet there are moments when she is alone with Queen Anne, and Weisz seems to hint that there might just be some real tenderness in their relationship.
Much attention has of course been given to the fact The Favourite is a film with three female leads, and in a love triangle no less. However, the film itself is refreshing for not drawing attention to this. Making a film where the three main characters happen to be female should not really be considered such a revolutionary idea in 2019, and while the film certainly comments upon the patriarchal society its characters must navigate, it never feels like it stops to pat itself on the back.
I’m not sure if The Favourite was my favourite film of the year: as someone who likes brevity, the last 15 minutes lost some momentum for me. However, it is a strange, unique and surprising film that has stayed lodged in my brain since I saw it. It is a welcome change from the usual period drama that appears at awards season, and for that it deserves recognition.