I don’t usually have film reviews in this blog, but then, they don’t usually make films about my historical period, i.e. the ‘Stuart age’. But the arrival in cinemas of The Favourite, the much-hyped film of Queen Anne’s relationships with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and Sarah’s cousin Abigail Masham, was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. Starring, in the respective parts, national-treasure-elect Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, The Favourite continues the somewhat unexpected resurgence of interest in the last Stuart monarch, following the West End stage production of 2017 (which I reviewed here). Of course, this by no means redresses a balance tilted overwhelmingly towards the same old stories about the same old monarchs – looking at you, Henry VIII plus the divorced/beheaded/died brigade, Queen Victoria (yawn), the current monarch, gawd bless her (soon, of course, also to be portrayed by Dame Olivia, gawd also bless her), and, above all, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Our screening of The Favourite was preceded by a trailer for the latest film featuring the last two, and it was good to see that the filmmakers had resisted the temptation to include a historically impossible meeting between them –
OK, yes, scratch that, they meet.
I’ll review said film when it comes out, but I think it’s a fair bet to say that in terms of my critical opinion, it’ll have to go quite some distance to recover lost ground (although David Tennant as John Knox is surely a case of Casting from Heaven).
Anyway, The Favourite is certainly no straight take on the reign of Queen Anne. I praised the recent play for the way in which it didn’t compromise over including the complex and (let’s be fair) sometimes quite boring political contexts of the time. The film doesn’t compromise, either, but in precisely the opposite way. Union with Scotland? Sorry, what, exactly, is this ‘Scotland’ of which you speak? Religion? Forget it. Two Houses of Parliament? Hey, guys, that’s a bit inconvenient, let’s merge them into one. The biggest issue of the age, the question of Hanoverian versus Jacobite succession? Not a peep. Yes, we get some politics, but it’s pretty superficial stuff, with such anachronisms as the titles ‘Prime Minister’ and ‘Leader of the Opposition’ thrown into the mix – and you might imagine the reaction of a naval historian of the age to the line about reinforcing Marlborough with an army division to be sent across in ‘a boat’. Having said that, some might detect a subtle political agenda on the part of the film-makers. To a man, for example, the Tories are portrayed as effeminate, preening, powdered fops who make Jacob Rees-Mogg look like the Incredible Hulk; by contrast, the Whigs may have, yes, wigs, but otherwise they’re normal-looking solid chaps who just happen to, umm, race ducks. (Horatio, the ‘fastest duck in the city’, even earns a place in the cast list.) Then again, could there possibly be any hidden political agenda whatsoever in portraying a head of state as a petulant, neurotic child-adult, or in having the central political debate centring on whether or not Britain should unilaterally withdraw from a continental alliance? Nothing to see here, move along now.
No, The Favourite focuses overwhelmingly on the relations between the three central characters, and in this respect, it’s quite outstanding. Colman’s queen may, indeed, be petulant and neurotic, not to mention afflicted with what must be the most gruesome case of gout in history, but she’s also deeply sympathetic, especially when it comes to the seventeen rabbits who wander freely, and remarkably continently, around her bedroom – each representing one of the children she lost. (On this point, at least, the film’s accuracy to the historical record is unflinching.) Weisz’s Sarah is as domineering and serpentine as one suspects the real-life duchess must have been, while Stone’s slow transformation from ingenue – outwardly, at least – into an arch-intriguer capable of outmanoeuvring even Sarah is arguably an even more nuanced and impressive performance than Colman’s, although the latter is bound to scoop all the awards. I praised the play for keeping ambiguous the question of whether or not the women’s relationships were sexual, but the film has no such modesty.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos deliberately shoots the film from unexpected and often disconcerting angles, sometimes employing such devices as fish-eye lenses, which creates an unsettling sense of dislocation. This serves to emphasise one of the film’s biggest departures from historical accuracy, the sheer emptiness of the internal spaces. In reality, the queen’s court would have been full of people, with flunkies and courtiers galore in permanent attendance. Here, vast staterooms are empty for much of the time, with barely a footman or a guard in sight, let alone a lady in waiting other than Sarah or Abigail. Of course, the lack of bodies may simply have been a consequence of the filmmakers’ budget, but it serves to emphasise the strangeness, isolation and emptiness of the queen’s life, bereft of the children who should have been running around the rooms in question instead of the bunnies. (One might also be forgiven for thinking that all seventeen children must have been immaculate conceptions; there is no mention whatsoever of Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark, although the chronology is deliberately vague, encompassing the period from 1704 to 1713 within what’s presented as no more than a few months at most.)
Finally, though, it has to be said that the film is very funny indeed, with some brilliant laugh-out-loud lines. The tone is set by one of the first lines in the film, when a servant comments about the state of the highway: ‘They shit in the streets around here,’ she says. ‘Political commentary, they call it’. Some may find The Favourite too rude (c-bombs abound), too strange, or simply too far removed from their preconceived idea of what a historical film should be like – apparently there have been quite a few unhappy punters walking out of showings. Maybe these particular moviegoers will be happier with Mary Queen of Scots, or else with something like Frozen Fast and Furious Avenging Transformers of the Caribbean XXVII. For my part, I reckon that Horatio, the fastest duck in the city, deserves a spin-off franchise of his own, as the role of racing ducks in history has undoubtedly been unfairly neglected.