Yorgos Lanthimos discovers the malice that permeates the palace in “The Favourite.”
Three women can never be best friends. It will always be two against one. Fully aware of this, director Yorgis Lanthimos offers up delicious cat fights and mean girl maneuvers in “The Favourite,” where two cousins, one a Lady, the other a kitchen maid, vie for the attention of Queen Anne, the last Stuart on the British throne.
The Anne we meet in “The Favourite” is the Anne that has gone down in history as a willful, slovenly, hysterical monarch; physically unwell and always weepy from 17 pregnancies, all resulting in dead children. This is a queen so poorly educated that her childhood friend, Lady Sarah Jennings Churchill, later Duchess of Marlborough, has to run the country for her.
As the movie starts, somewhere in the early 1700s, Anne (played by Olivia Colman) is becoming just a little bit miffed at the high-handedness, if not outright bullying, that Sarah (Rachel Weisz) so freely dispenses. The new maid, Abigail, (Emma Stone) who understands about soothing poultices and aching legs is such a sweet contrast – polite, subservient, and not at all interested in the testy war brewing between Whigs and Tories.
Or so Her Majesty believes… Abigail Hill, later the Baroness Masham, may have “fallen far” socially – she’s threatened to be “stripped and whipped” wherever she turns, by the Queen, by the cousin, by the many noblemen who want various favors – but that long exposure to the dregs of society has made Abigail wily. And in time she learns that human nature is the same, in high places and low.
In his two previous movies, “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” director Lanthimos relished showing callous people committing heinous acts, and in “The Favourite” too, nastiness is on display and goes unpunished. It takes a while to discover the malice that permeates the palace, hidden as it is among the sumptuousness of the place. With its amazing tapestries, marbled halls, and Long Gallery, Hatfield House (part of it was the childhood home of Elizabeth I) again serves as backdrop for a historical movie where the walls does much of the talking.
If kindness is a largely unknown concept in “The Favourite,” it does exist in the form of the love Queen Anne shows the seventeen rabbits she keeps caged in her quarters. In real life Anne never kept any rabbits, but Lanthimos put them there to symbolize the queen’s many miscarriages and dead children.
Lanthimos takes many liberties with historical facts. To make Anne seem more isolated than she really was, he has eradicated Anne’s husband of 25 years, Prince George of Denmark. By contemporary accounts, they were compatible and happy together, united in their loss of the three children that stayed with them for a little while.
A happy husband would have put a damper on the magnificent power plays that are engineered by the three women, though, and changed the format of the whole movie. “The Favourite” is a comedy and would have suffered from intrusive realism . Did we want to know that Anne’s miscarriages was caused by an autoimmune disease, antiphospholipid syndrome? Absolutely not!
Just how intimate was the decades old friendship between Anne and Sarah and how instrumental was Abigail in having Sarah dismissed from the Queen’s service? In the cheeky screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, “The Favourite” spins its theory from the angry memoirs Sarah Churchill left behind. She outlived Anne by some 30 years which gave her plenty of time to blacken the Queen’s character.
Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz will in all likelihood receive Oscar nominations for their splendid work in “The Favourite”. A fair jury would give them each a Best Actress award – their performances are equally strong, their parts equally large.
British Actress Olivia Colman is not a conventional beauty but she has what audiences want now: someone who is utterly convincing in drama AND comedy, on TV AND film. Not unlike our own Melissa McCarthy, a comedienne recently lauded for her dramatic work in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
American audiences discovered Colman in the TV-series “Broadchurch” and “The Night Manager.” She got rave reviews for both and won several acting awards.
Next, she’ll be Claire Foy’s replacement in “The Crown” as a “mature” Queen Elizabeth II.
The strong female cast basically obliterates the male performances in “The Favourite” but Nicholas Hoult manages to stand out. He plays Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford, Queen Anne’s prime minister before the job had a name. He was also Abigail’s cousin and knew how to develop that relationship.