Film Review: The Favourite
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
This is one of the most deliciously wicked historical films I have seen since The Borgias.
The period is the first quarter of the eighteenth century during the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). England is at war with France and the politicians are divided on whether to continue the war and alienate the populace who will have to be taxed to pay for it or to sue for peace and cut their losses. There is ferocious political maneuvering in the court, theoretically overseen by the remarkably disengaged queen, who is besieged by physical and mental ill-health. In reality, the job of ruling has been usurped by the queen’s close friend and confidant, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough. The duplicitous and scheming Lady Sarah selectively filters information to the queen while administering to her various emotional and health issues and cementing her control. The queen suffers excruciating attacks of gout, disgusting sores on her legs, obesity, and deep sorrow over seventeen pregnancies without a single offspring. Lady Sarah is arguably the most powerful person in England at the time, much to the dismay of the preening and overweening, bewigged and powdered fops in the cabinet.
The arrival of Lady Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone) at the court, in dire circumstances, triggers a chain of events that brings down the precarious imperial hothouse of cards. Abigail has had a drastic fall from grace caused by her profligate father’s gambling which has brought ruin on himself and his family. She needs a job which Sarah reluctantly and ungraciously provides, as a maid. Sarah who initially appears ingenuous and grateful, gradually catches on to the duplicitous machinations of court life and begins to hone her skills as possibilities for advancement become available. As Abigail cunningly begins to curry favor with the queen while Sarah is busy running affairs of state, she figures out how to exploit the insecurities and vulnerabilities of the queen. She literally begins to seduce her and undermine Sarah. She enlists the willing aid of some of the men, who she manipulates with great skill. This is not so difficult as everyone wants the same thing, the end of Lady Sarah.
Needless to say, Sarah will not take this lying down and things escalate to a fever pitch of chicanery and viciousness. This being a Yorgos Lanthimos film, means that things go way over the top into the realm of the absurd. Among the courtly pursuits which are pilloried is duck racing, pomegranate pummeling, a hilarious court dance which involves elements of hip hop performed to baroque music. There are also poisonings, blackmail, sexual deviance, lies and betrayals. Also bunnies. All of these nefarious goings on take place in Hatfield House, with vast and gorgeous interiors, filmed with natural light. The spectacular costumes by Sandy Powell include the most absurdly extravagant wigs for the men, which serves as an indicator of the reversal of the gender roles in this film. It is all about the women. They rule and they are calling the shots. The men are pawns in their hands. It is a richly beautiful production, laced with huge quantities of contemporary profanity and Lanthimos’ own brand of strangeness and deadpan humor. While the historical context is factually correct, it is safe to say that the more salacious details might have been artistically altered. or imagined. I would not quibble. It’s a delight.
Watch the trailer here
Written by: Belle McIntyre