The year is 1708 and Britain and France are at war (as usual). Beset by gout, Queen Anne rarely leaves her palace bedroom. Ministers of state and members of parliament can only hope to speak to the queen on rare public occasions, when she often flees from her subjects before any issue of note can be discussed. The only way to reach the queen is through her courtiers, especially her favourite, the Duchess of Marlborough.
Meanwhile, lady Marlborough’s cousin, Abigail, travels to the court to try to win her favour. Abigail has fallen on hard times, impoverished and desperate. The haughty Marlborough sends Abigail to the kitchens to work as a scullery maid, a role far, far below her station.
In this world of personal favour, access to the monarch is all, and so begins a cunning quest by Abigail to rise through the ranks and usurp her cousin as Queen Anne’s confidant. She is aided by a simple twist of fate. One night, Abigail stumbles upon Anne and lady Marlborough’s great secret. They are not just queen and companion, but lovers.
The Favourite took two decades to come to the screen. In a shameful critique of earlier norms, the script failed to get the green light due to the absence of major male roles. Ironically, it is the very fact that it has three strong, female characters at the fore that has made it such a shoo-in during the awards season. Olivia Colman (Anne), Emma Stone (Abigail) and Rachel Weisz are clearly having the time of their lives with such deep, challenging parts to play with.
The Favourite has echoes of Othello, with a guileless master and a duplicitous underling. Indeed, Abigail is something of an anti-hero, a female Iago, though Stone’s innocent outward behaviour still allows the audience to feel on her side.
The direction is beautiful, with candelit corridors and gorgeous costumes. One gripe is that they occasionally use a fish-eye lens to create a different effect. While this may be arty and original for the film executives and critics sitting slap bang in the middle of the theatre, we had arrived late and were stuck far to the right in the second row from the front. The fish-eye effect just served to make the angles even weirder.
Possibly one of the greatest benefits of watching this movie is that it has awakened an interest in me for this era, of which I knew very little before sitting down to the film. As a time of turmoil, treachery and internecine struggle, it is now apparent that this one of the most interesting periods in British history.
The script writers deserve special credit. They never go too deeply into the historical, political or religious background. We know just enough to understand the debates between the characters, but we aren’t expected to digest a long list of names or know about events of recent years. Limiting the background exposition is harder than it looks, but it’s handled extremely well here.
While perhaps not a film that is going to change anyone’s life, The Favourite is a bold, modern take on historical drama. This film is only going to grow in stature as its stars hoover up gongs in the award season. It is also so beautiful that I would happily sit through it all over again.