You had to make your own fun in 18th century England, and if you were rich this might involve taking a pet duck for a walk, throwing fruit at a naked man in a long pink wig, or being the naked man in the long pink wig (who seems to be delighted with his involvement). Plus of course manoeuvring behind the scenes to make sure you’re the favourite.
Yorgos Lanthimos’s take on the real life relationships (love, sex, friendship, politics) between Sarah Churchill Duchess of Marlborough, Queen Anne and Sarah’s impoverished cousin Abigail is funny, brutal and fascinating.
Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Anne (Olivia Colman) have been friends for years. They’re also sometimes lovers, though as befits their respective status, this results in more giving than receiving on Sarah’s part. (The sex isn’t central though it’s good to have more movie sex scenes involving middle aged women, particular the kinds of women who wear a lace bonnet to bed). Sarah calls Anne Mrs Morley; Anne refers to her as Mrs Freeman in return.
At times their friendship seems something akin to mother and daughter, with Sarah an alternately praising and admonishing mum and Queen Anne the imperious toddler, short of attention span, prone to tantrums yet capable of great generosity and humour. In return Sarah has the ear of the monarch and is to be given a palace (Blenheim, once it is completed).
Sarah is spectacularly rude to everyone including the Queen, ordering her about in matters of friendship and politics. Leader of the Opposition Hardy (Nicholas Hoult) is desperate for more influence with Her Majesty but is constantly wrong-footed by the duchess. (Sarah’s altercations with Hardy are so much fun. He’s met his match and watching Weisz and Hault do battle – he in white powder, garish blusher and a huge wig, she in elegant black and little make up – is an absolute joy.)
Then along comes Abigail (Emma Stone), a cousin of Sarah’s who has fallen on hard times since her impoverished father lost her in a card game to a German with a thin penis.
She first arrives covered in muck, having been pushed out of a carriage on her way there, after a journey crammed in with strangers including a man masturbating opposite her (listed accurately on IMDB as “wanking man”). Much later it’s her rival Sarah returning to her house covered in mud and blood, having been forced to stay in a brothel and even offered work there.
Starting off in the scullery Abigail is soon promoted to Sarah’s maid, but wastes no time trying to ingratiate herself with the queen; she’s not nearly as practiced as Sarah, though she’s more desperate. For women with little formal power, love, sex and a dry wit and their best weapons. And a gun. Fail to stay on top of your exhausting game and you end up being bullied into helping someone else.
Meanwhile the war with France needs paying for (Mark Gatiss is a genial Duke of Marlborough) and the Queen is pulled this way and that over whether to double the land tax to raise revenue.
Anne is a tragicomic character. Having outlived all her children (she was pregnant 17 times) she has 17 pet rabbits to replace them. She’s in pain, her feet gouty, her legs ulcerated, using wheelchairs, crutches and even a sedan chair to get around. So we can forgive her enjoying her ability to bestow riches: “It is fun to be queen, sometimes”; or indeed her impossible-to-please moments when she demands footmen answer her then berates them for looking in her direction. Imagine Blackadder‘s Elizabeth I and Prince Regent, with a dash of Henry VIII during his grumpy years (actually Sarah would make a very good Edmund Blackadder).
The clothes and make up tell their own story. Every lord and lady favours black and white, resplendent in these stark silks and damasks while living in rooms dripping in colour: pictures, tapestries, drapes, enormous vases of flowers. It starts to make sense why Sarah’s favourite analogy is to liken people to badgers.
The men wear more make up than the women and no one has heard of blending. The gentlemen’s wigs are astonishing and make one wonder if they are meant to signify length and width in another department too – competitively long, with a curly nugget sticking out of each side of the head. In Parliament, all the Torys in their long white wigs sit on one side and the Liberals in their long dark wigs sit on the other, the countdown to a game of chess.
All three leads are superb. Weisz is utterly riveting as Sarah, a woman in a man’s world so used to going on the attack that it’s second nature to her now. If at any point the story starts to flag, Weisz’s entrance instantly perks up the tale. Will Sarah be bitter or caring? Mean or sultry? She’s the backbone of the story, with the wayward Abigail and indulged Queen Anne to be manoeuvred around like those chess pieces. She may be coercive but she’s also a buttress against Anne’s own indulgences.
Stone perfectly captures Abigail’s singleminded desperation, so determined that she can’t even face her man when she’s giving him a hand job. Instead she turns away, muttering to herself about what she needs to do (though I suppose we’ve all been guilty of that at some point).
And Colman is exceptional – her Queen Anne is mercurial but also witty in her own right. Flirty and vexatious, knowing and imperious, self-pitying and sexual, only at her lowest ebb is she susceptible to basic flattery. Her hangers-on must work hard; even manipulations must be the very best.
The dialogue is dazzling, Sarah’s mean barbs piercing the queen to the monarch’s great enjoyment and occasional annoyance. A letter of apology is started “Last night I dreamt I stabbed you in the eye” which has a Du Maurier quality to it. Their chatter is bawdy and brazen. “Cunt-struck” Hardy calls Abigail’s paramour, a phrase we should all use more. The candlelit ball with its dance sequence is bizarre but hilarious.
Lanthimos’s film, from a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, is (mostly) fast and furious, a gorgeous and frenetic delight, and his cast are never over the top.
Sadly after so much hustle and bustle, The Favourite suddenly flags towards then end and then it just… stops. But don’t let that put you off. As Sarah says to Abigail as they shoot pigeons, “there’s always a price to pay – I am prepared to pay it”, and so should we.
Watch the trailer for The Favourite: