Between Helen Edmundson’s recent play Queen Anne (RSC, 2015) and Yorgos Lanthimos’s film The Favourite – both drawing in some measure on Ophelia Field’s 2002 biography of the Duchess of Marlborough under the same title, and telling the story of the love triangle between the Queen, the Duchess, and the upstart Abigail Masham – the early 1700s seem to be having a long-overdue cultural ‘moment.’ While critics have sought to make connections with contemporary concerns about gender, sex, and power, however, the blend of party politics and bedroom gossip at the court of Queen Anne has captivated audiences ever since it was first fictionalised in the ‘secret histories’ of Delarivier Manley – writing close enough to the moment to topple a ministry and face arrest.
Manley, with her seamless mixing of fact and fiction, would have found herself entirely at home in The Favourite. The film opens with all the conventions of a traditional period drama: a fanfare of Baroque music, the Queen in a lavish apartment being dressed in elaborate regalia. It is also divided novelistically into chapters, with an almost fetishistic devotion to eighteenth-century typography: often (as in the poster) justified past the point of legibility.
This is just one of the ways that The Favourite turns into a parody of its own generic trappings. The razorlike exchanges of wit are peppered with profanities and anachronisms (‘okay,’ ‘no pressure,’ ‘don’t make a thing of it’); a stately ballroom scene turns into a breakdance interlude; a portly nude man is pelted with rotting fruit against a screen in slow motion. The gorgeous costumes are rendered almost entirely in monochrome, with characters moving like pawns across chequerboard floors – although the frequent use of fisheye lenses sends all the straight lines subtly askew.
Large enough for the Queen herself to become lost in, the palace is a sprawling outpost surrounded by Scriblerian levels of filth: it takes only the slightest push to send someone from a formal walk into the midden. The idea that this period was both over-sophisticated and dirty is not itself a revolutionary one (see, for example, The Libertine, Restoration, or Ridicule), but Lanthimos adds an additional layer of surrealism. Animals are everywhere: not only the requisite horses, but Godolphin’s champion duck Horace (‘must the duck be here?’); the pigeons that characters bloodily shoot as stand-ins for each other; the seventeen rabbits that Anne tends instead of her dead children. At one point she and Abigail plan to race lobsters and then eat them – a likely callback to Lanthimos’s previous film, The Lobster, another blackly-comic story about groping for human connection in an absurdist world.
Grounding this funhouse-mirror version of the eighteenth century are three extraordinary performances from actors at the top of their game. Olivia Colman, who has never shied away from unglamorous roles, is by turns capricious, funny, and pathetic as Anne, running the full expressive gamut from the Queen of Hearts to The Crown; Rachel Weisz is an indomitable and fiercely intelligent Sarah Churchill; while Emma Stone – with her scrubbed-clean expressive face and a very credible accent – plays Abigail as a likeable underdog who has to swiftly reorient her moral compass in a quest to never go hungry again.
It is tempting to compare this portrayal with the RSC’s Queen Anne, which covers much of the same ground: both even have Sarah tell Abigail near the close, ‘I suppose you think you’ve won.’ Yet while Edmunson aims for ‘history play’ coverage and includes a chorus of politicians and coffee-house satirists, The Favourite, despite its cinematic scope, is far more claustrophobic in focus. The male roles are barely more than cameos, of which Nicholas Hoult’s foppish Harley is the most prominent; their desires and concerns are frankly a bit silly, although the power they hold is real. This sidelining doesn’t get more visually obvious than the scene in which Abigail gazes into the camera, plotting out her multilayered schemes against Sarah, while reaching behind to give her husband a perfunctory hand on their wedding night.
The political wheeling-and-dealing has also been simplified to a binary question of whether or not to continue involvement in war on the Continent, and whether to raise taxes to fund it (Godolphin and Sarah for; Harley against). That war is represented by Marlborough’s absence and a map spread haphazardly over the half-awake Queen’s bed, while the country itself, apart from Harley’s occasional appeals to the mood of the populace, barely exists. Instead, the setting is almost entirely limited to the palace – Hatfield House likely standing in for Hampton Court, its formal gardens surrounded by a forest that doubles as natural retreat and St. James Park-like den of iniquity. There is a single mention of Swift; someone gets a copy of Dryden thrown at their head.
To complain about any missing period details, Sarah Churchill’s hair colour, or an ahistorical poisoning subplot, however, would be to miss the point of The Favourite (the point is that Rachel Weisz gets to be sardonic in a brothel, and to wear a sort of black lace eyepatch: why would you ever not cast Rachel Weisz?). For anyone not overly committed to pedantry, however, this is a sharp, sumptous delight of a film about complicated women that will reward repeat viewings.
If it is has any flaw, it is perhaps its very insistence on its own iconoclastic weirdness: a final reluctance to let the story speak for itself. This is most evident in the last moments: Abigail, apparently victorious but bored, lounges in the ailing Queen’s bedroom and contemplates crushing one of her beloved rabbits under a high-heeled shoe (no rabbits were harmed in the making). Anne, overhearing a noise, commands Abigail to come and massage her legs in a prelude to sexual services, standing while Abigail kneels with barely-concealed distaste before her. It is a pithy summary of the contingent, fluctuating, but ultimately limited nature of power as it is available to these characters. Yet the camera lingers on their faces long past the point having been made – much longer than most shots in this fast-paced picture – cross cutting between them until at last it fades into a field of tessellated rabbits, filling the screen. Roll over-justified credits, to a harpsichord version of Elton John’s ‘Skyline Pigeon.’
Are the rabbits a metaphor for death? For the unconditional love Anne feels has been denied her? For our brute but helpless animal natures? It isn’t entirely clear. What this ending seems to ensure is that, within the stylized chessgame we have just witnessed, the ultimate winner remains the director: if this is Lanthimos’s most ‘accessible’ film (as it has often been described), then that access is still, like that to the royal court, only via a narrow lit path leading through the mire.
The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, was released in the UK on 1 January 2019. It is currently on cinematic release.