Movie review: The Favourite

February 23, 2019

‘THE Favourite’ is currently being shown in Trinoma and watch it now before it vanishes. It has won seven awards at the British Academy Awards, including best British film, best original screenplay, best actress for Olivia Colman and best supporting actress for Rachel Weisz. At the Oscars, it got a total of 10 nominations.

The story is about Anne (Olivia Colman), a little known queen who ruled for 12 years from 1702 to 1714. She had 17 pregnancies with her husband, Prince George of Denmark, but some ended in miscarriages and the others died as infants. She was the last monarch in the House of Stuart and since she left no heir, was succeeded by her cousin George I of the House of Hanover. She was plagued by bad health, especially gout, and grew fat.

The movie is set in 1708, when England is at war with France. She takes care of 17 rabbits, representing the children she has lost. Her personal friend and adviser is Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough who is the real power behind the throne. They are also secret lesbian lovers. Sarah wants to fully control the Queen, but she’s resisted by Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), the Earl of Oxford and a Tory member of the Parliament who opposes her wish to double property taxes to finance the war with France, which she wants to continue.

Things get more interesting with the arrival in court of Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s poor cousin who has a blemished reputation after her father lost her to a German in a card game. Abigail is looking for work and Sarah gets her to work as a housemaid in the place. Abigail finds a chance to ingratiate herself with Sarah and Queen Anne when she concocted an herb poultice that helps the queen’s legs that are swelling from gout. Sarah then promotes her to be a chambermaid.

Harley talks to Abigail and tries to persuade her to be his spy to discover what Sarah’s plans are. A baron in the queen’s court, Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), becomes interested in Abigail and she flirts with him without really giving in. She also discovers the lesbian affair between Sarah and Anne and then schemes to be closer to the Queen, eventually also ending up in bed with her.

But Sarah quickly becomes aware of Abigail’s ulterior motives and tries to dismiss her. Abigail has her own secret intentions, though. She turns out to be more ruthlessly manipulative and drugs Sarah’s tea. This results in an accident where Sarah goes missing for several days. Abigail then connives with Harley for the Queen to allow her to marry Samuel Masham and she regains her nobility by now becoming a baronness. Abigail continues to plot against Sarah until Sarah and her husband fall into complete disgrace.

The film is told with a very dark edge by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, who have made such weird, strange but acclaimed films as “The Lobster” and “Killing of a Sacred Deer”. “The Favourite” is his most accessible film so far, but it’s still very odd compared to other historical films on British royalty. We love watching films like “Anne of the Thousand Days”, “Lion in Winter”, “Murder in the Cathedral” and “Mary Queen of Scots”, but “The Favourite” is most certainly unlike any of the historical films we’ve seen before.

The film is loosely based on the rivalry of Sarah and her cousin, Abigail, which is really found in history books, but the original screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara takes a lot of liberties. They make the script more like the French-derived “Dangerous Liaisons” in its treatment of romantic entanglements and political intrigues. There are lots of backstabbing and double dealing, making the lesbian relationships a certainty instead of just being subject to speculation, and showing how twisted human relationships can be.

The rivalry between Sarah and Abigail to gain the queen’s attention and affection will remind you of Margo and Eve in “All About Eve”, immmortalized in the film version by Bette Davis and Anne Baxter. The movie’s chief strength is the superior acting of the three lead actresses. Only Colman is nominated as lead but the roles of Stone and Weisz in their deadly triangle are actually as big and vital as hers and couldn’t be easily discounted as supporting.

Stone has big round eyes that exude innocence and a certain vulnerability, but don’t be deceived as she can be so ambitious and unscrupulous as Abigail, while Weisz is properly cold and regal as the more dominant Sarah. Weisz might win her second supporting actress Oscar. The first one was for “Constant Gardener”. Colman is quite sympathetic as what Anne is really, is a tragic figure. She might be the queen but she’s not aware that she’s actually being exploited by the two wily women who both profess love and loyalty to her.

But in the final scene, Anne seems to have finally become aware of her mistake. She sees Abigail deliberately stepping on one of her rabbits and she realizes Abigail’s true nature. She then orders Abigail to massage her legs, treating her again as just a mere servant. This is a very sobering scene, but before this Lanthimos goes to town with his curious scenes showing members of royalty dancing to quirkily stage dance numbers, duck races, and there’s also a weird sequence where a fat but naked male aristocrat wearing a powdered wig is pelted with fruits while he’s giggling with alacrity. The film has well-crafted production values, even the deranged musical score, but especially the cinematography that uses wide angles to take in everything in this well-conceived and unique spin on period political romps.