The Favourite a Well-Acted Mess

The Favourite (2018)
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

The three reasons to see this film

I’m an independent cinema fan who intensely dislikes malls, which means that I’m just now catching up on some of the 2018 Oscar contenders on Netflix. In the case of The Favourite, that’s probably just fine, as it didn’t exactly light up the box office.

Olivia Colman won the Best Actress hardware for this one. Did she deserve it? Nope. She was very good, but she wasn’t even in the same league as Glenn Close in The Wife. (I’ll get back to you on Lady Gaga, as I’ve not yet seen A Star is Born.) Colman’s victory, though not a travesty, resulted from one of Hollywood’s most annoying traits: tokenism. Every few years Hollywood takes flak for being out of touch and decides to prove its empathy by dishing out statues to those in the correct checklist box, whether or not they actually deserve them. This time, Hollywood tried to prove it really loves the LGBTQ community. I applaud that, but I’d be more impressed if what we saw wasn’t a repeat of 1994 when Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia: straight actors playing gay.
The Favourite is basically a messy­­–on many levels–power triangle with a lesbian subtext. Colman is cast as Queen Anne, the British monarch who ruled from 1702-14. We meet her as war with France has precipitated a political and economic crisis. Anne is obese, ravaged by gout, is carried about in a sedan chair, and in the thrall of her childhood friend, Sarah Jennings Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. Anne has lost 17 children* and keeps the same number of rabbits in her chamber, where she is little more than a sickly child scarcely capable of wiping her own mouth. Sarah (Rachel Weisz), Anne’s Keeper of the Privy (treasurer), is a political animal who bends Anne to her will by also being her lover. Into the mix comes down-on-her-luck Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin, who secures work as a scullery maid until the herbs she picks eases Anne’s gout, gains her a rise in position, and, eventually, also a place in Anne’s bed. What plays out is a struggle between Sarah and Abigail to see which is more Machiavellian. It’s a classic be-careful-of-what-you-ask-for film.
Colman, Weisz, and Stone are terrific, though you’d be hard-pressed to rationalize why any one of them is the “lead” actress and the other two are in “supporting” roles. When the three of them are engaged in palace intrigue, The Favourite is conspiratorial, acidic, and steamy. As for being entertaining, that probably depends upon your grasp of 18th century English history. I mean this literally. Unless you know that the war against France is the War of Spanish Succession, and are versed in the struggles between Hapsburgs and Bourbons, the haplessness of the Stuart monarchy, and Parliamentary factionalism between Tories and Whigs, you’ll probably be left in the dark as to who is stabling whom in the back at any given moment. This means that secondary characters such as Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), the 1st Earl of Godolphin (James Smith), the 1st Baron Marsham (Joe Alwyn), or even Sarah’s husband, the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatis) are little more than male peacocks in silly wigs and sillier clothing battling over pecking order.  
Beware any film tagged as “loosely based” on real people or events. There is very little in The Favourite that passes historical muster. Screenplay writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara claim to have researched carefully. What they have not said is that Anne’s lesbianism was a smear job concocted by Sarah Churchill as revenge for having been dismissed from Court. Or that, by most accounts, Anne was devoted to her Danish-born husband, Prince George–who does not appear in the movie, though he lived until 1708–and that severe illness during the last decade of her life (1665-1714) rendered any love affair, marital or extramarital, exceedingly unlikely.
Historians generally interpret Anne’s whispered lesbianism within a context in which Sarah Churchill promoted the Tories, whereas her cousin Abigail courted the Whigs. Filmmakers, of course, have artistic license, but it’s hard to get past the idea that The Favourite is, like its secondary characters, just an excuse to play dress up and mask contemporary issues behind miles of crinoline. Were it not for strong performances from Colman, Weisz, and Stone, The Favourite would the biggest mess of “loosely based” historical comedy/drama since Sofia Coppola’s inept Marie Antoinette (2006).
Rob Weir
*If anyone cares, Anne actually had 18 pregnancies.

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