I asked one of my students what I should review this week, with both options being about powerful women (the other was On the Basis of Sex). On the surface, The Favourite, nominated for ten Oscars, seems to just be an expose of the decadence of the royal court in the early 18th century. We expect this to be another costume drama that exploits the audiences desire to see inside the lives of the rich and famous, but it is not even close. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) ruled for twelve years starting in 1702. When she came to power she brought along her long-time friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, (Rachel Weisz) giving her unrivaled power. Sarah’s influence led to an ascendance of the Whig party and power for her husband as well.
Queen Anne suffers from gout and doubt. She isn’t sure how to manage the House of Lords. She is vain, sometimes impetuous and even self-centered. She wonders if others are making fun of her, if she is too fat, or if she is making the right decisions. Then in an instant, she turns around decision in hand and proclaims this is the way it is. Her relationship with Sarah is strained as Sarah strives to advance her own political agenda. It all blows up when Abigail (Emma Stone), a relative of the Duchess of Marlborough, shows up and vies with Sarah to become the Queen’s favourite. Under all of the intrigue that follows we are never sure if there is any genuine love, or if all of the offered affection is really selfish. The queen doesn’t really grasp that the other two women are fighting to be her favourite. She seems to think she can have both. Coleman plays this brilliantly and we never catch her winking at us.
Yorgos Lanthimos’s creation is a comedic farce with the wide-angle shots and the constant back and forth between rooms full of rabbits and rabid men. On top of the urge to laugh however is the simultaneous sense of empathy for these women, mixed with an equal measure of disgust. But there is much to lose for Sarah and Abigail; Sarah feels the weight of the whole country on her shoulders and Abigail could be reduced to a body for sale on the street.
The rabbits that inhabit the queen’s room on first encounter add to the eccentricity of the queen, leading the viewer to wonder about her mental capabilities. As the story unfolds we grasp the sadness these represent, the loss of numerous children the queen has birthed, with none of them surviving. Ironic to replace the missing children with rabbits which usually can reproduce at the drop of a leaf of lettuce. Queen Anne was not so fortunate, and by the time the film opens has lost both her husband and all of her children. We are never allowed to forget this pain, unlike hearing about it once and then moving on.
Abigail arrives destitute and covered in mud, since her father disgraced the family name by losing everything, including her in a game of cards. She must use the opportunity of knowing Sarah to assist her in becoming a lady-in-waiting again.
The men seem about as helpful as the rabbits, with their preoccupations with racing ducks, wearing excessive makeup and big hair, political intrigue and uninvited sex. They wage their political might back and forth between the Tories and the Whigs, both seeking to get their influence to the Queen. But this story is about the women and their triangulated struggle while the men are mostly relegated to less developed characters who are mostly there to look at.
The queen doesn’t really grasp that the other two women are fighting to be her favourite. She seems to think she can have both.
Olivia Coleman is magnificent moving from pain, to outrage, and appearing to be unaware of what is happening. Emma Stone capably opens up the façade of innocence exposing the teeth of a tiger, who will take what she needs to survive. They deserve the Oscar nominations, but I’m not a predictor of who will win. The cinematography, design and acting all work together beautifully dragging us into this world that seems much worse than we imagined. Who is going to pay for the war? When is the right time to seek peace? Should taxes be raised? Is your duck really the fastest one in a race? Who really is the favourite? No heart-warming ending or joyful romance at the end. As Sarah hints, in this film there is no winner.