The Favourite was released in the UK on New Year’s Day and seems to have started the period of, for me at least, the dark days of ‘Awards Season’ when even the most clued-up programmers in specialised cinemas are forced to screen every English language ‘art’ film angling for Oscars and BAFTAs. I fear that The Favourite may be another Three Billboards or La La Land – a film with genuine merits that is taken up by critics, heavily promoted and embraced by a significant audience, but which on closer inspection turns out to be seriously flawed. There are some significant differences compared to the other two titles mentioned above. The Favourite has three strong performances by powerful female actors and it appears to have been embraced by women in particular. It clearly ‘speaks’ to certain female audiences – but what does it say?
I’ve seen only one of the previous films of Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth (Greece 2009), and I had a similar reaction to that film so it was a bit of a gamble to choose to watch The Favourite (but that’s what happens in Awards Season – there is often nothing else to watch). After Dogtooth and one further Greek film, Lanthimos moved into English language films with The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). He has maintained an Irish-UK production base and worked with a raft of high-profile actors including Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz, both of whom signed up for The Favourite.
The Favourite has a screenplay written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and it focuses on the triangular relationship between three women. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne the reigning British monarch between 1702 and 1714 and Rachel Weisz plays Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, one of the most powerful women in England and Anne’s companion since the two were young women. Now Sarah acts as Anne’s go-between on a daily basis, dealing with Parliament as ‘Keeper of the Privy Purse’ and generally supporting the monarch who is plagued by several afflictions (and who has lost 17 children through miscarriages, stillbirths and infant/child deaths). Anne and Sarah are very close – intimate in fact. In what is in some ways a conventional narrative structure, the ‘inciting incident’ is the sudden arrival of Sarah’s distant cousin Abigail (Emma Stone). Families then were very large and it was not unusual to have little knowledge of some of the large numbers of cousins. Abigail first works as a servant, having lost her status as a ‘lady’. But she is clever and soon she gains royal favour and begins her ascent to eventually rival Sarah.
The triangular relationship was also the basis for the stage play Queen Anne written by Helen Edmundson and first performed in 2015 and again in 2017. Although dealing with the same three characters and some of the same events, the play appears to take a different approach. Deborah Davis, a historian, first started work on her script for The Favourite in 1998 and found plenty of source material. It’s perhaps surprising then that the narrative ignores some of the major events and political discourses of the period. The central characters are all historical and the narrative itself is not that far from the historical record but the presentation of the events and their (lack of) background/context meant that I spent half the film trying to work out why the context was so confusing. It’s not a period I know well but I know enough to feel uncomfortable. I should note here that on this blog we have had some conflicting views about historical accuracy in recent films, especially in Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House and Amma Asante’s films Belle and A United Kingdom. But those films were attempting to comment on specific events which had great historical import. The Favourite is an ‘intimate comedy-drama’ with seemingly no interest in the period or its politics.
I can certainly see why Olivia Colman and Emma Stone were so keen to take on their roles. They both have great fun taking on the challenges of roles which push them through a wide range of physical actions and unusual situations and they are both very good and very entertaining. I think Rachel Weisz has a tougher gig as Sarah, the seemingly colder and harsher character who seemed to me conversely the more sympathetic. I think she is equally good but I expect the other two will get the nominations.
The triangular drama works effectively but I didn’t find the film particularly funny if that is what it is meant to be. (The comedy is mostly about eccentricity and silliness and posh people swearing – even though Anne’s life has had tragedy.) The film looks very handsome and when you sign up Sandy Powell as costume designer you always get a period piece which at least looks interesting. I’m less sure about Robbie Ryan’s cinematography. Usually I admire it, but here he seems to have been persuaded by his director to use an array of fish-eye and other distorting lenses – as if he was creating images for a 1970s prog-rock album cover (see the trailer below). Similarly, I didn’t much like the mix of various classical music pieces (from different time periods) coupled with some odd jarring sound effects. Lanthimos has said he wanted to make a film as much about ‘now’ as about the early 18th century. I don’t have a problem with the intention and moving away from traditional British realist period dramas is definitely no bad thing. I just didn’t enjoy the mix of ideas here. Robbie Ryan also shot Andrea Arnold’s controversial take on Wuthering Heights (UK 2011) and that worked well. Lanthimos has also stated his wish to make a statement to support the #MeToo movement by creating powerful female characters who are the centre of attention in roles that are often taken by men. Again, no problem with that. But what is the film really about? Is it any more than the rivalry of two cousins to become favourites of a Queen? What does Anne get from her relationships apart from enjoying the distraction from pain and loneliness? That does make a good drama but does it justify the high production values? How do these powerful women have an impact on the people and politics of ‘Great Britain’?
Let me just suggest a few of the things that happened during Anne’s reign that don’t appear in the film. The English army led by Marlborough is referred to as fighting ‘the French’. The war is treated as an English-French contest important mainly because of its cost. Queen Anne jokes about it as being like attending a party. It’s actually the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), a European War involving all the major states of Europe and a colonial war in which Britain fought France and Spain in North America. Marlborough was one of the two Allied commanders in Europe. Britain financed the allies and came out of the war as the major European maritime and commercial power, gaining important territories from Spain and France after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The other main event, in 1707, was the Act of Union between England and Scotland so what was originally an English army became a British army. Both these issues were underpinned by the struggle to confirm the Protestant dominance in Britain and to control the Catholics. Anne was raised as a Protestant but her father James II had been a Catholic. Differences between the two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, were also partially concerned with religious affiliation. None of these issues appear in the film. The film has Anne and Sarah meeting with both Whigs and Tories to debate and decide issues of financing the war and raising taxes. I’m not a constitutional historian but the scenes in the film strike me as unlikely given that Anne was deemed to be a ‘constitutional monarch’ not a monarch with absolute authority – she was the last British monarch to refuse to sign a parliamentary bill in 1707 (concerning the Scottish Militia).
The film was shot mainly in two locations, Hatfield House, home of the Cecil family, and Hampton Court Palace. Anne doesn’t go into London to Whitehall and Westminster and we never see any of her subjects except for the courtiers and servants. You may argue that none of this matters and I’m sure that most audiences, especially in North America but also probably in the UK, won’t have their enjoyment of the film spoiled in any way if they don’t know the background – even if this story is set only a few years after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Yes, a film about these three characters can work with only a very hazy notion of life at the start of the 18th century and there is nothing wrong with a personal drama about three women. But if Lanthimos wants to explore women as powerful characters whose activities have an impact on millions of lives, we do need to understand a little more about that society. I’m also amazed that the film never seemed to refer to Sarah as ‘Sarah Churchill’. Especially since the producers had previously made The Darkest Hour and Winston Churchill spent much of his time thinking about his celebrated ancestor as one of Britain’s “greatest military commanders”.
Playing an Elton John song over the closing credits (which are almost impossible to read) will either make or break the film according to taste.