Scandalous Review: The Favourite

The Favourite – starring Olivia Colman (Queen Anne), Emma Stone (Abigail Hill Masham), and Rachel Weisz as Sarah Marlborough.

I had totally forgotten that The Favourite was playing at the New York Film Festival until I saw it mentioned in Time Out magazine. So of course, I decided immediately that I needed to see it now and not when it comes out next month. All 8 showings were sold out, but I managed to get a stand-by ticket to the 7:00 pm showing. The film is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos who directed films such as The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, neither of which I had seen. I read a brief blurb about the film which said that this is probably the most mainstream film he’s ever directed, so take that as you will.

The plot:  Early 18th century. England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving. A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne's ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing and Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots. As the politics of war become quite time consuming for Sarah, Abigail steps into the breach to fill in as the Queen's companion. 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.

So, what did I think of the film? I can say unequivocally that I really liked it. I can’t say that I loved it unabashedly. The film is sort of an 18th century version of All About Eve, Abigail is taken in by her cousin Sarah but is relegated to the kitchens as a scullery maid until she manages to help soothe the Queen’s gout. Only then does Sarah promote her cousin to the slightly higher status of her personal maid. Abigail seizes her chance to stop being a door mat, to better herself and score a hot, aristocratic husband at the same time. What made the film for me were the performances, especially Olivia Colman as Queen Anne. To me she is the heart of the film. Colman captures the aching loneliness and bewilderment of a woman who never thought she would be Queen, and who has no idea how to cope or who to trust. She puts all her faith in Sarah Marlborough who treats her with a mix of affection and disdain. The scene where she tells Abigail about her seventeen pregnancies (yes, Anne was pregnant seventeen times) and how none of her children survived is heartbreaking. Emma Stone impressed me with her performance as Abigail Hill.  Her Abigail at first just wants to rise from the kitchen, slowly as the movie progresses the audience sees her grow more and more Machiavellian as her star rises at court and she manages to her oust her cousin from her position as the favorite of Queen Anne.  It was fascinating to watch her realize who she can use others to get what she wants.

Rachel Weisz plays Sarah Marlborough, Abigail’s cousin and the Queen’s current favorite. The Queen and Sarah are so close that they call each other Mrs. Morley and Mrs. Freeman. Sarah can take liberties with the Queen that other courtiers do not. Her performance for me was the weakest link but that had more with the script. Her Sarah isn’t allowed to have as many shades of gray as the other characters in the film. I think it was a mistake not to have at least one scene with her and her husband Marlborough (played by Mark Gatniss). The two of them could be considered an 18th century power couple. Weisz captures Sarah’s overwhelming ambition and casual cruelty, but we see little of any genuine affection for the Queen. Weisz’s performance as Sarah perfectly captures the old adage that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

SPOILER ALERT:  The film leans heavily into the notion that Queen Anne was a lesbian and that her relationships with her two favorites were sexual. Of course, one can never really know for sure what went on behind closed doors, but it is clear from surviving letters that her affection for Sarah at least went beyond friendship. No doubt Sarah took advantage of that affection for her own purposes.
What the film does best is capture the almost claustrophobic nature of the court, and how the Whigs and the Tories were constantly jockeying for the Queen’s favor to push forward their own agenda. While the Whigs (favored by the Marlboroughs) are in power, the Tories led by Lord Harley spend their time scheming how they can control the government, using Abigail Hill for leverage.  One of the weaknesses of the film is that the audience has no idea of the time frame, although it is clearly during the War of the Spanish Succession. Normally, if you know anything about fashion you can tell by the costumes, but in this case it’s extremely hard.  Also, the male characters, particularly Samuel Marsham are very thinly drawn compared to the main female characters of the film. They are beside the point, which is actually kind of nice for a change!

How does the film measure up to history? Well, Abigail was part of Anne’s household before she became Queen. The historical Sarah Marlborough treated Abigail with a bit more kindness than the movie Sarah. For example, she certainly didn’t make her scrub floors! The real Lord Harley was also related to Abigail, and considerably older during the events portrayed in the film.  Nicholas Hoult is about 20 years too young for the role. Also, Abigail was in her thirties during the reign of Queen Anne and was older than her husband by several years.  There is no surviving portrait of Abigail Masham but her contemporaries wrote that she was considered quite plain.

Sandy Powell’s costumes are gorgeous by the way, she sticks to a mainly black and white palate for the women.

Despite the historical inaccuracies, I highly recommend this film. It’s rare that an audience gets to such a female-centric film and Olivia Colman’s performance is just breath-taking, she certainly deserved the best actress award that she received at the Venice Film Festival.

Anyone interested in reading more about the period, should pick up these books.

Susan Holloway Scott – The Duchess (about Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough)
Jean Plaidy – Courting Her Highness: The Story of Queen Anne (A Novel of the Stuarts)

Ophelia Field - The Favourite: The Life of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough
Anne Somerset – Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion


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