Award-season favourite The Favourite: A brilliant blend of Restoration comedy and arch political satire

By Liam Lacey

Rating: A

The Favourite, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s sixth feature, and third in English, is a breakthrough by any measure. This shamelessly entertaining historical comedy recently swept the British Independent Film Awards, has Golden Globe noms for picture and all three main actresses, and rates as one of the most original films of the year. 

Boldly feminine-centric, The Favourite stars Olivia Colman as England’s Queen Anne (1665-1714)  with  Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Churchill and Emma Stone as her servant cousin, Abigail Masham (nee Hill), competing courtiers in early 18th-Century England. The domestic conflict is set against the background of the off-screen battles of the War of Spanish Succession, considered the first modern world war. 

 Emma Stone is a solicitous maid who social climbs by flattering Queen Anne (Olivia Colman)

Emma Stone is a solicitous maid who social climbs by flattering Queen Anne (Olivia Colman)

The movie bridges the traditional Restoration comedy to the political satires of Armando Iannnucci  (Veep, The Death of Stalin). Comedy also entwines with tragedy here, and bold touches of absurdism and iconoclastic revisionism. The monarch, Queen Anne, is a morose, petulant figure, plagued by gout, doting on a collection of pet bunnies in her chamber who stand for her many miscarried or dead children. 

While their husbands are away leading England in a multi-national alliance against France, Lady Sarah (Weiss), pulls the strings of the realm, instructing and cajoling the childish Queen on decisions ranging from taxation to eye makeup. 

She takes a bit too much pleasure in verbally emasculating Tory leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), who wants to cut funds for the endless conflict. When the Queen asks Lady Sarah if the people are “really angry” about the new land tax, her advisor shoots back: “They’ll be angrier when the French are sodomizing their wives and planting their fields with garlic.”

Then Sarah makes a misstep: She decides to give her impecunious servant cousin, Abigail (Stone) a break by getting her a job as a maid and gives her some good advice on the importance of currying favour. In a short time, the teacher is surpassed by the student.

The screenplay for The Favourite was first written in 1998 by novice screenwriter Deborah Davis (based partly on Sarah’s uncharitable biography of the Queen and Winston Churchill’s biography of his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough). The story was polished by Australian Tony McNamara (the TV series, Doctor, Doctor), into a stage-worthy piece of writing, full of epigrammatic snap and insight into the animal passions beneath the periwigs and  petticoats, and the biggest change in Lanthimos’ accessibility.

The director’s earlier Theatre of the Absurd-influenced dramas (Dog Tooth, Alps) revealed a striking talent who seemed likely to be doomed to a career as an admired art-house director.  His two English films – The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer – were intellectually provocative, if hampered by misanthropic cruelty. Here, the line between cruelty and compassion is more ambiguous: “Love has its limits,” declares Lady Sarah when the Queen asks her to greet her bunnies, because she equates love and honesty. Abigail, in contrast, offers the queen the unconditional kindness which Sarah, in her coldheartedness, refuses. She’s willing to ingratiate and pander to achieve her goals.

Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan (American Honey) has a camera in constant motion, shooting at odd angles, with a lot of wide-angle and fish-eye effects, to suggest the characters as trapped in the vast goldfish bowl of the palace. The use of natural lighting evokes Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (as the long hospital corridors in The Killing of a Sacred Deer suggested The Shining). 

Costume designer Sandy Powell (Orlando) creates period costumes that never feel generic, but play with character: A pirate-like androgyny for Weisz; hints of nouveau riche gaudiness for the upstart, Abigail, and an ermine-lined slovenly nightdress for the Queen. 

The court aristocrats – men mostly – are as ridiculous as Monty Python characters. They amuse themselves in antic dances, gamble on racing ducks or the proto-paintball sport of pelting a nude servant with pomegranates.  The Favourite is packaged into eight chapters with jaunty titles (This Mud Stinks, I Dreamt I Stabbed You in the Eye) while the musical score mixes classical (Handel, Bach, Purcell, Vivaldi, Schubert) with anachronistic dashes of electronic and scratchy modern music.

All this is deliberately distancing and while we are encouraged to laugh, we are also compelled to consider this trio of performances and the three complex women they embody: Emma Stone as abused waif turned conniving sociopath; Rachel Weisz as the too-honest advisor to power and, especially, Olivia Colman as the queen, hitting the tragi-comic heights, a petty and incompetent leader, a great ball of howling need, open to sycophants, allergic to the truth.

Because The Favourite is a satire, I couldn’t help but wonder: what Jonathan Swift doing when this was going on? It turns out that Swift managed to earn Queen Anne’s enmity and scuttle his chances for a royal appointment after he unwisely published the poem, The Windsor Prophecy, advising Queen Anne to be on guard against another favourite called “Carrots”, referring to the red-haired Duchess of Somerset. 

The real life, Lady Abigail, who was a good friend of Swift’s, warned him that publishing the poem was a bad idea. Whatever else is fictionalized in The Favourite, Abilgail knew her monarch’s mind and the risk of offering unwanted advice.

The Favourite. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Written by Deborah Davies and Tony MacNamara. Starring: Olivia Colman. Rachel Weiss, Emma Stone and Nicholas Hoult. The Favourite can be seen at the Cineplex Odeon Varsity Cinemas.