The Favourite – a review

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Every image in The Favourite transports you to Queen Anne’s court, 1704

This is one long delicious chocolate eclair of movie. I was disappointed it ended. I had been thoroughly entertained for its entire length. The production values are superb.

The main protagonists are three women, two are cunning, dexterous. All three are bisexual. One is lonely, bereaved, unfulfilled as a woman who happens to be Queen of England. Women attending a screen might be interested to learn that all the male characters, every one, is a secondary character or a supernumerary. The women are in charge from cook to queen.

The script is a stoater, the kind Oscar Wilde could have written, the acting is of the highest order, the costumes of Academy Award standard, the camera work sumptuous.

The scenery needed no creation. Filming took place at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire and Hampton Court Palace, Richmond upon Thames. The royal carriages are spot-on period accurate, and the animal characters perfectly placed, whether white plumed snorting steeds between carriage shaft, or pigs spit roasting across a huge inglenook fire. Walls are draped with tapestries or book lined, night scenes hold a thousand candles and a guard with a fiery torch. The detail is intoxicating.

At the top, the cast of delights are: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and a young actor worth watching, Nicholas Hoult. Kate Winslet was originally cast in the Rachel Weisz role but dropped out. She must be kicking herself. Weisz has been handed one of the best roles of her career.

The tag line says ‘biography, comedy, drama’. It certainly is biography, some aspects conjecture as you’d expect, there’s lots of fine wit to get you chuckling rather than belly laughs, but no drama. In place of drama of the action variety it offers tension in every scene. You delight in the Machiavellian exchanges between characters, the politicians, the lower orders, but the women in particular.

Witness the English class system in full spate. Every moment illustrates the callous pecking order. Arrogance abounds. Each aspect tells us how suffocating is an hierarchy that demands not just allegiance to the top but grovelling subservience too.

You doff your cap, you bow, you kneel in supplication, you leave a room shuffling backwards, head lowered. You do not look or speak to an aristocrat unless asked to do so, and even then you might get your faced slapped for the effrontery.

We see how a monarch ruling the land absolutely and everyone in it, to the point she can dismiss her entire government if they fall out of favour – rather as our Queen did to Australian premier Gough Whitlam.

The Favourite drops us into early 18th century. England is at war with the French – it was ever thus. The Queen’s entourage hear only reports of the war, they are too busy enjoying duck racing, outrageously camp dance routines, and eating pineapples.

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Anne has everything a monarch could wish for, power, wealth, but no children

A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), queen of England, Scotland and Ireland, is afflicted by bouts of lachrymose. The second daughter of the grand old Duke of York, she was ill from her teens and in time grew obese. Overeating is a common disorder born of loneliness and boredom. (Colman put on two  stone for the role, a post-production season at health farm to lose it written into her contract.)

She feels life is passing her by. We meet her after she has given birth to seventeen children, the persistence of Prince George of Denmark, none surviving beyond their eleventh year. Post natal depression is her wow factor. She’s worried – the English throne has no heir. Anne feels the biggest failure in British royal history. (Charles, take note.)

Anne’s reign was short, from 1702 to 1714. When she died she was the last monarch of the House of Stuart. In that short time she oversaw the Act of Union, England with Scotland, signed and sealed. The party in power, the Whigs, did not want the union. Anne welcomed it. Anne would also see a Bill to reverse the Treaty. It failed by four votes.

Like our contemporary Queen Elizabeth II, who keeps reinventing herself while remaining exactly the same as before, Anne favoured moderate Tories, and these are represented by her parliament’s landowning earls and gentry led by Lord Harley, played with absolute relish by Nicholas Hoult in an array of outrageous wigs, powder and rouge.

The party in power, the one Anne dislikes, are the war-like Whigs led by the urbane Earl of Godolphin, (James Smith) Lord High Treasurer, who negotiated the 1707 Acts of Union. His need for royal assent concerns his wish to send more troops to France in support of Lord Marlborough, a costly exercise.

Anne’s whims and maladays are tended by her favourite and close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) wife of Lord Marlborough. Sarah governs the country in Anne’s stead while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. Lady Sarah pretty well has Anne under her thumb, both bullying and cajoling her as the moment merits.

When a new servant Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Abigail is not the slip of a waif she first appears. Unknowing of Abigail’s past, Sarah takes her into her trust while keeping her most secret secrets, secret. Spotting Sarah’s weaknesses, Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots. She seizes it with both hands, a few kicks in the genital area, and some sleazy sex.

As the politics of war become time consuming for Sarah, Abigail steps into the breach to fill in as the Queen’s companion. It does not take her long to ingratiate herself with the ever self-centred Anne. Their burgeoning friendship gives her a chance to fulfill her ambitions and she will not let woman, man, politics or rabbit stand in her way.

As far as the history goes of Anne’s time the film is absolutely faithful to the main players their triumphs and their tragedies, one family in particular falling out of favour with Anne, and indeed, banished for a time.

Of the dialogue to which we are privy, I have not done enough research to know what is actually recorded and what is the creation of the writers, but with one exception, the colloquial “No pressure”, it all sounds exactly of its time. (I penned this review within three hours of seeing the film and published it same evening.)

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The costumes almost outshine the acting

For this Restoration comedy Sandy Powell works her usual magic in the costume department, dressing the men as powdered fops, with just a suggestion of posing. The women are given costumes that light up their face. She escalates Abigail’s sartorial choices as her influence in court increases, a sly skill. The costumes are a wonder in their own right. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography uses fisheye angles to allow us to see far left and right and into the topiary gardens, and low light in the claustrophobic royal rooms. Nothing appears excessive, nothing underdone. Anna Meredith gives us a minimalist baroque score, adding Handel and Purcell where plotted.

How hard it is to choose which actress (actor!) wins our attention the most, I’ll leave to readers to judge. I thought they were all marvellous, real unselfish ensemble playing. If I have a favourite it is Abigail. I regard her a heroine of our times. Had I pencil and paper in the cinema – and a small torch to see by – I’d have noted much of her sharp ripostes tossed back at Sarah’s flinty aggression.

Stone gives Sarah lots of shadows and strength. “Did you come to seduce me or rape me?” she inquires of Masham (Joe Alwyn), a handsome, green young buck. “I am a gentleman,” he replies. “So, rape, then,” she says, lying back legs spread, face expressionless gazing at the ceiling.

The only thing missing from The Favourite is love of another other than oneself, but that’s the whole point of the story, that and usurpation. As for Greek Yorgos Lanthimos’ direction, if a film is this good the direction is beyond critique.

Some sequences verge on a romp, and the result, though far from Lanthimos’ usual eccentric, personal journeys, could well bring him an unwanted commercial success. He usually writes his own scripts, this time not – The Killing of a Deer (2017), The Lobster (2015), Dogtooth (2009). I hope he has the integrity to resist Hollywood’s lure to helm glitzy potboilers. They always come with a price, and in the case of European auteurs, the death of their career.

Historians and Hollywood have been besotted with raging Elizabeth I and morbid Queen Victoria but it is time they took another look at Anne to reassess her achievements – and her part in the Union of 1707.

Meanwhile, we can enjoy the elegance that dazzles from ever part of the screen, and the complexities of desire that can see the least deserving win the battle though some are transformed for the better by losing.

  • Star Rating: Five stars
  • Cast: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone
  • Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
  • Writer: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
  • Cinematographer: Robbie Ryan
  • Composer: Anna Meredith, Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi
  • Rating: R
  • Duration: 1 hour 48 minutes
  • RATING CRITERIA 
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?
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6 Responses to The Favourite – a review

  1. diabloandco says:

    Like the sound of this one – may have to part with some pennies!

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    You won’t regret it. You don’t need to be a history buff to enjoy it. Squirm with delight at the betrayals and cross betrayals.

  3. andrew mccoll says:

    Gareth, my girlfriend went to see this yesterday and asked if I wanted to come. I looked into reviews, the trailer, and did some brief (wikified) research on this Queen Anne person (I didn’t vote for her!). My research told me two things; firstly, that this person was the head of state when England married Scotland (against the majority of wishes of both peoples) and passed the Alien Act, and secondly, that that massive issue (dividing us now, as it did then) is overlooked in the film. So, do tell, was my assessment of that African elephant’s constant presence in the room not something that annoyed you EVERY SECOND OF THE 2hr FILM as it would have annoyed me?? Serious question, cos it looked a good prospect apart fae that. That one, serious, grave, ill-timed omission. What say you?

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    Yes, you’re correct. Then again, I’d go to see Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ though it’s about the class system. The film reduces the subject matter to two rivals for the Queen’s favours, and two politicians, But it has a lot to say about the English class system, and even more about the rights of women. There is another film, as you imply, in Anne’s wish to ‘own’ Scotland, and the Alien Act. As I mention in mytreview, writers and historians have ignored Anne for too long in favour of … two rivals, Elizabeth and Victoria.

  5. kenmcdonald1 says:

    Excellent review Gareth of an excellent movie.

  6. Grouse Beater says:

    Many thanks. There’s another film worth making about Anne and Scotland.

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