Movie Review – The Favourite
So many films have been made about British royalty. Earlier this year, there were TV movies about Prince Harry and his marriage to Meghan Markle. This December, a film was released about Mary, Queen of Scots. If you look at the history of the Academy Awards, even recent history, you’ll see the Academy loves films about British royalty, such as The Lion in Winter (1968), Elizabeth (1998) or The King’s Speech (2010). Most often, those films are heavy and dramatic. This one is more of a comedy, a black comedy that leans toward satire and spoof of those British royalty films, if that be a genre. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, a Greek filmmaker whose sense of humor is famously known for being warped and twisted, this movie is probably his least warped and twisted, but with more of an edge than most royalty films have been lately. In his previous films, Lanthimos’ sense of humor could be confused for cruelty, as well as a kind of misanthropy. This film might be the better of all his films because that cruelty doesn’t appear to be as strong here as in previous.
This film is also a course correction for what was my chief complaint in Lanthimos’ The Lobster (2015). There was a rather significant aspect of homophobia in The Lobster, which I pointed out in my review of that film. That homophobia is totally absent from this effort. In fact, there is same-sex attraction and gay sexuality here put at the center in a way that’s highly appreciated. It’s also a rarity for a British monarch to be in a same-sex romance or in this same-sex, love triangle. It’s certainly a rarity of it in film and TV, as far as I know. Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II and the Derek Jarman adaptation depicted the homosexuality of King Edward II who reigned starting in 1307. According to some historians, King James I who reigned over England starting in 1603 was also believed to have had three male lovers. Most depictions of James I, however, don’t dive into those possible lovers.
Olivia Colman (Broadchurch and The Night Manager) stars as Queen Anne, the British monarch who ruled Great Britain from 1702 to 1714. She’s isolated for the most part. She stays in her bedroom for the majority of the film, occasionally popping out to make speeches or whatnot. She’s a bit overweight and suffering from health issues like gout that keeps her bedridden or limited to a wheelchair. This isolation has made her ignorant in a lot of ways and also insolent. She has big emotions that swing between that ignorance and insolence. However, the main emotion on her mind is her lesbian love for her lady-in-waiting.
Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener and The Mummy) co-stars as Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, the queen’s lesbian lover or at least her bisexual or sexually-fluid lover. She’s actually not totally lesbian because she does have a husband whom she apparently also loves. Her husband is the Duke of Marlborough, a military leader who’s mostly away fighting wars, so that leaves her alone to her own devices. Before learning of her relationship with the queen, we see Sarah act as Queen Anne’s proxy.
If this were an episode of Scandal or House of Cards, Sarah would be acting as Anne’s Chief of Staff, if Anne were president. Not knowing much about British royalty or Parliamentary politics, I don’t know what the equivalent position would be for White House Chief of Staff, but that’s Sarah’s role, much to the chagrin of all the people around her, including members of Parliament. This role is referred to as the “favourite” position. On a side note, this isn’t the first time Weisz has played a queer character. It isn’t even her first time this year. Earlier in 2018, she played a Jewish lesbian in Disobedience.
Emma Stone (La La Land and Birdman) also co-stars as Abigail Hill, the cousin to Sarah on her mother’s side. Her family has fallen on hard times, so Abigail asks for a job from Sarah in Queen Anne’s court. Sarah reluctantly and dismissively gives her a job as a servant. Abigail though doesn’t seem content to be a lowly servant. She’s smart. She’s an educated woman, so she starts to plot to get closer to the queen and become a “favourite” as well. She learns how to navigate power-plays from all sides, the manipulations, the jockeying and tugs-of-war.
The machinations here aren’t as intriguing or as sharp as those in Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship (2016). It’s also not as thrilling perhaps, but it does something better than that Stillman film did. The tugs-of-war feel like actual tugs. They feel in fact like there is a back-and-forth and that Abigail’s social climbing has some hindrances and roadblocks. Sarah pushes back and sometimes hard. Others like Robert Harley, a member of the Parliament, played by Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road and X-Men: First Class), literally push her back too.
In terms of conniving or scheming women, Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship is like a combined version of Sarah and Abigail, but this movie keeps Weisz’s character at too much of a distance. With cinematography that’s always looking up her and everyone else’s nose, constantly low angles, and many fish-eye lens shots, this movie does create a distance between the audience and the characters. It perhaps also shows the character’s aloofness or the stature of the characters, particularly the women.
Yet, the writing for Beckinsale was also supremely better. Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, a lot of the comedy is built around what one character states as veiled threats under the guise of civility or conversely outright sharp wit. There’s also a lot of blunt comments and insults that keep the film entertaining. However, Colman’s temperamental character is the better of the three, female performances and also provides the bulk of the humor, as well as the pathos. There’s also random silliness like a trip to a whorehouse.
The funniest moment though also involves sex. It’s Abigail’s wedding night. Joe Alwyn (Mary Queen of Scots and Boy Erased) plays Samuel Masham, a courtier who works with the horses and who like Abigail herself sees marriage as a way of moving up the social ladder and getting more via the connection to the queen. His wedding night grants him a sex act that’s enacted by his wife but while she’s more concerned with Sarah’s next, jealous vengeful move. It’s the second most shocking moment after the scene where Sarah is physically hurt.
Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs.
In select cities, including Rehoboth Beach, Wilmington and Annapolis.