The Favourite Is a Sharply Faceted Costume Drama

The Favourite, the newest film from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, tells you right up front what it’s about: it opens with a scene of Queen Anne, having just made a speech, being divested of her ermine-trimmed cloak and crown. In the next scene, in deliberate contrast, we meet Abigail Hall, who’s apparently down on hard times and shows up to Kensington Palace covered in mud.

The mud, she informs us, stinks. A maid tells her it’s because people defecate in the streets as a form of political protest.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as Sarah and Abigail. Atsushi Nishijima/™ and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

This set of contrasts sets up the themes for the entire movie. Abigail, played by a golden-blonde Emma Stone, is young and fresh faced; in contrast, Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and Queen Anne’s particular favorite (at the beginning), is dark brunette and more than a decade older. Clothing is typically black and white, sometimes both at the same time; the Whigs wear brown wigs and the Tories white ones. The leader of the Tories, Robert Harley (played by Nicholas Hoult and his unmistakable cheekbones), is young and foppish; he never shows up except in makeup, and it’s implied more than once that he may be gay. He works behind the scenes and is very happy to be underhanded. The leader of the Whigs, the First Lord of the Treasury, is Lord Godolphin (James Smith), older, titled, no makeup, and straightforward. It’s clear he’s been in his position for years and that he’s absolutely used to doing his job the usual way, of having a drink with someone and coming to an agreement, rather than sneaking around behind everyone’s back.

Nicholas Houck's cheekbones in a wig

Atsushi Nishijima/™ and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

There are fisheye lens shots and wide-angle shots; the hallways are dark, and people walk through them with only a candle, but the queen’s bedroom is bright, with large windows. The queen herself (Olivia Colman) spends a lot of time in her bedclothes, mostly white but with black trim; her dark hair and the white bandages around her leg (she had gout and other chronic illnesses) add to this. The soundtrack veers between lush Baroque orchestral and organ music and a minimalist sound, single notes by a piano or a string instrument. Everyone appears to be jovial, if not precisely happy, or utterly miserable, and there isn’t much in between.

Olivia Colman as Queen Anne. Yorgos Lanthimos/™ and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

The behavior of characters is also a study in extremes; most of our important characters are gentry, nobles, or royalty, and yet they wallow in their own humanity. They curse, they discuss awful subjects including rape rather cavalierly, they roll around in the dirt (literally and figuratively), and they throw oranges at their fellow House members. The queen, in particular, swings from earthy sexuality to an almost prissy insistence on formality more than once.

In any case, the basic plot is that Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, is the queen’s favorite, and then her cousin, Abigail, comes to Kensington Palace to seek a job, and she sees that the way forward is to take Sarah’s place as favorite. There’s a throwaway heterosexual love interest in Colonel Masham, Abigail’s canonical husband, but the real relationships in the plot are between Queen Anne, Sarah, Abigail, and politics.

Rachel Weisz in masc dress, Olivia Colman looking dejected

I fully confess that I included this picture solely to show you Sarah in her riding outfit. Yorgos Lanthimos/™ and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

For all that, there are some nods to a gray area. There are brown rabbits, for one thing. Sarah appears to genuinely care for her husband, the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss). There are quips, humor, sight gags, and other clever moments, but overall, it isn’t a comedy, and the ending is ambiguous at best. The performances are stellar from top to bottom, even including Horatio, the fastest duck in the city, and the costuming, settings, and cinematography are amazing as well. It’s an incredible artistic achievement.

Fancy ballroom with an excellent checkerboard floor

Atsushi Nishijima/™ and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

As to historical accuracy, it all seemed plausible, given what little research I’ve done. The movie does seem to conflate a few events and doesn’t mention a couple pieces of information that seem important: First, that Abigail was also Harley’s cousin, not just Sarah’s (the intermarrying of British families is legendary and needs no explanation). And second, religion. Overall, many of the biggest disagreements in Parliament and with regard to the line of succession during this time were related to religion. The Whigs were associated with Protestant dissenters and commercial interests, and the Tories with the Anglican church at this time—around 20 years after the Glorious Revolution—and nothing was entirely settled. Anne herself was raised Anglican on her father’s command (even though he was an infamous Catholic convert) and, from all reports, was sincerely religious. Without any of this mentioned, it makes for perhaps a story more explicitly centered around the machinations of people; it leaves out any concept of external morality aside from “What would you do for your queen and your country?”

It feels a little strange and hypocritical for me to be arguing that the omission of the entire concept of religion from a movie made it a lesser film, but here I am.

Profile photo of Rachel Weisz's character in front of a fireplace.

Just look at the detail in the set. Also at Rachel Weisz. Yorgos Lanthimos/™ and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

For my own expertise, I can only speak to the soundtrack, which, despite being set in the early 1700s (about 1707, as best as I can tell), made use of a modern piano, including an Elton John tune in the credits. The classical works chosen, overall, were mostly Handel, Purcell, and Bach, three of the greatest Baroque-era composers, so I can’t complain there. There was one scene where a music master with a large wig conducts a string group made up of youngsters, and given that Queen Anne was known to support Georg Friedrich Handel, whose music made up a good part of the soundtrack, I shall believe that that was an appearance by the good composer himself.

Harley, in full powdered wig, white makeup, rouge, and neckerchief.

Harley (Nicholas Hoult) and his absurd, fashionable wig. Yorgos Lanthimos/™ and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

And yet, considered in the context of film history, I do have to admit that at some point in the near future I’d really like to see a historical drama with happy queer people. The movie never intimates that the women are miserable simply because they love (or bed) women, but it’s difficult to extricate that type of pain from all the other types of pain. We’ve seen a lot of queer pain in the theater recently, a lot of it winning awards—as this undoubtedly will, although it’ll be for costuming and set design—and while it’s unfashionable for happy movies to be considered “artistic achievements,” maybe we could try a few times before we declare that unlikely.

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