Should I Watch..? 'The Favourite'
What's the big deal?
The Favourite is a period comedy-drama film released in 2018 and was written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Directed by Greek film-maker Yorgos Lanthimos, the film follows life in the upper echelons in the court of Queen Anne as her favour is sought by two feuding cousins - Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and the impoverished Abigail Hill. The film stars Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone and was held as an example of the changes brought about by the Me Too movement, signalling an increase in the amount of female representation in movies. The film was widely praised by critics, especially for the performances of its leading trio and went on to earn multiple awards, including a Best Actress Oscar for Colman. Despite a relatively small budget, the film went on to earn $95.8 million worldwide and has even raised the possibility of a sequel.
What's it about?
The year is 1708 and England is at war with France. Despite this, Queen Anne takes little to do with running the military campaign and spends more time with her rabbits and racing ducks. Her close personal friend and adviser Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough is effectively running the country in her stead, using her influence over Anne to further her own political ambitions - much to the chagrin of Opposition leader Robert Harley who is against a proposed doubling of property tax in order to fund the war.
Amid this political turmoil, Abigail Hill arrives at the royal household seeking employment. With her family falling on hard times, she pleads to the better nature of her cousin Sarah who reluctantly takes her on as a humble scullery maid. Nevertheless, Abigail makes the most of her opportunity after producing a salve for the Queen's gout-afflicted legs. With Sarah increasingly away dealing with quarrelling politicians, the Queen's affection for Abigail grows - quickly pitching the two cousins into a bitter feud for the Queen's favour...
Queen Anne of Great Britain
Sarah Churchill, Duchess Of Marlborough
Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford & Earl Mortimer
Samuel Masham, 1st Baron Masham
John Churchill, 1st Duke Of Marlborough
Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl Of Godolphin
Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara
Release Date (UK)
1st January, 2019
Comedy, Drama, History
Best Actress (Colman)
Academy Award Nominations
Best Original Screenplay, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Stone), Best Supporting Actress (Weisz), Best Cinematography, Best Editing
What's to like?
It's difficult to believe that this low-budget period piece is so entertaining and solid from a production point-of-view. From the opening shots to the very end, every scene looks immaculately presented and authentic with puffed-up costumes, excessive makeup and ridiculously pompous wigs that heighten director Lanthimos' surreal style. His direction is first-class throughout - impassive but deeply intimate and erotic when required. He also captures the film's comedy (mainly from Colman's incredible performance) but also balances it with the inherent tragedy of the Queen, driven half-mad by the loss of her seventeen children who were mostly stillborn.
The increasingly bitter battle between Weisz and Stone feels genuinely too fantastical for words but it's hugely enjoyable as well as so refreshing to see women control a film's narrative in this way. Instead of women playing action roles that smack of tokenism, here is a film that gives these three women almost unlimited scope to tear lumps of flesh off each other both physically and emotionally. But Colman's performance outshines everything, not just producing a fabulously petulant and spoilt woman but also portraying the Queen through her increasingly frailty and numerous illnesses that plagued her through her life. She somehow combines a sense of mischievousness, internal torment, scorned lover and regal powerhouse in one role and she makes it her own with aplomb.
- Due to the tight budget, costumes had to be made from scratch as hiring them would be too expensive. Costume designer Sandy Powell had to split her time between this film and Mary Poppins Returns, fortunately using an adjacent work space at Pinewood Studios. Powell would receive Oscar nominations for both films.
- The palace that Queen Anne wishes to build for Sarah Churchill is Blenheim Palace which would become the ancestral home for the Churchill family for 300 years. Sir Winston Churchill, a direct descendant of Sarah, would be born in Blenheim in 1874.
- This is the second time that Colman, Weisz and Lanthimos have collaborated on a project together. The first film that involved all three was 2015's The Lobster which was also Lanthimos' first English-language production.
What's not to like?
I confess that my knowledge of that period of my country's history has somehow eluded me over the years. While I obviously can't blame The Favourite for that, I did feel that I missed some of the historical context of the film. Granted, the film isn't entirely accurate - Lanthimos himself has confirmed this - but the film is based in a certain degree of truth. I initially disliked the ending which I felt didn't provide the explosive blow-off I was anticipating but after some thought, I came around to it and thought it largely worked. The other issue I had was with the direction which felt too similar to Alfonso Cuarón's Roma which also had an impassive camera coolly observing events without passing judgement.
But assuming that you're open to a film that plays with your expectations and refuses to be conventional then you're going to enjoy this. I'd only even seen Lanthimos' earlier film Dogtooth which is a bizarre satire featuring a couple attempting to isolate their children from the outside world and teaching them their own, twisted doctrine. Like Dogtooth, this film has a view of the world that is slightly off-kilter and it throws you off as a viewer. Maybe I was too prepared for Lanthimos' style of direction but The Favourite feels much more accessible and user-friendly than the director's surrealist reputation might suggest.
Should I watch it?
Much more than a LGBT-friendly period piece, The Favourite is a ground-breaking film that demonstrates the breadth female-led films can possess. Funny, sexy and heartbreaking at times, this is a fantastic film that deals with jealousy and lust and political ambition. I found it deep and very rewarding and this is one film thoroughly deserving of its many platitudes.
Great For: Olivia Colman's career, LGBT audiences, Lanthimos' future career, female representation in film
Not So Great For: the easily shocked, animal rights activists, historians
What else should I watch?
Lanthimos has quickly established a reputation for producing films that look at the world from a different perspective, thanks to films like Dogtooth and The Lobster - an absurdist fantasy about people turning into animals if they don't find a partner. His style of film-making is certainly an acquired taste but you finally get it by the time the film ends. When I watched Dogtooth years ago, I found it to be almost impenetrable until the end when I suddenly found myself invested in the characters. It was then I realised what Lanthimos was trying to say and I've kept an eye open for his films ever since.
For some reason, Queen Anne's reign hasn't often been portrayed as often as other monarchs in the UK. Other than a brief appearance in Mel Damski's uneven comedy Yellowbeard, the character appears in the novel The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo and their subsequent silent movie adaptations in 1921 and 1928 - the latter of which featured Conrad Veidt in his famous portrayal of Gwynplaine, The Man Who Laughs. Anne is also a character in the play The Glass Of Water which has been adapted several times in films but never in an English-language production.
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© 2019 Benjamin Cox