Costume dramas get a bad rap. They’re often called stuffy, overlong, and overproduced. Then there’s all that history! Like, who wants a history lesson when they go to the movies?
Well, I do, even though I know movies are notorious for rewriting history.
Lately, too, it seems modern costume dramas are confined to a very few eras (as well as location: Europe, with a large percentage set in Great Britain). The Tudor and Victorian periods are definitely overrepresented. I’ve been obsessed with the Tudor period since my parents took me to see Anne of the Thousand Days when I was nine years old, and even I think there are too many movies/miniseries set in that time period. There are tons of other periods that are absolutely fascinating which rarely get dramatized.
What a refreshing change to see The Favourite, set during early 1700s and the reign of Queen Anne. But that’s only one way that The Favourite is unique.
The story focuses on Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) relationships with two women: her life-long friend and confidant Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Sarah’s poor relation Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). Abigail arrives at the palace hoping for a helping hand from her cousin. Forced to do menial work, she manages to help the Queen with the pain from her gout and soon wins her favor. Sarah does not trust her cousin but allows her to become a lady of the bedchamber to please the Queen.
The Queen has many health problems and suffers from bouts of depression. It is a contest to see who will gain her trust and exert the most influence on her. A contest not only involving Sarah and Abigail, but the factions in Parliament as well. Sarah uses her influence on the Queen to push for higher taxes to fund a continued war with France, which gives her husband the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gattis) many chances to attain glory. Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), the leader of the opposition, is against the tax increases and war. He recruits a reluctant Abigail to gain information about the Queen and Sarah.
Abigail discovers the Queen and Sarah have a sexual relationship. Rather than go to Harley with this information, she seduces the Queen. To Sarah’s horror, she finds that Abigail is becoming as important to the Queen as herself. A new contest, a ruthless one including poison and charges of criminal activity, begins between Sarah and Abigail, with the possibility of only one winner.
What also makes The Favourite refreshing, besides the era it’s set in, is its focus on three complex women striving for power in a patriarchal world. Queen Anne is completely out of her depth as a monarch—but then, so were many of her predecessors and successors. Her father was deposed and her brother delegitimized because they were Catholic. While religion is basically unmentioned in the film, it’s her Protestantism that gives and maintains her power. The ruling class finds her gender far less offensive than her father and brother’s religion. She’s sick, she’s tired, she’s grieving for the 17 children she lost to miscarriage and illness, but she’s still Queen.
Sarah Churchill was a friend of hers since childhood; a member of the minor aristocratic class that suffered great misfortunes before the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II. Her friendship helped to elevate not only herself but her husband. It is historically accurate that Abigail Hill became ascendant in the Queen’s favor as Sarah’s began to wane.
Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and director Yorgos Lanthimos take the seeds of those real relationships and turn them into a fascinating study of the ephemeral quality of power. Sarah is so used to her power that her arrogance causes it to unravel with astonishing speed. Abigail also overreaches, which leads to the final (and for some, bewildering) final scene of the film.
One thing I usually despise in costume dramas is anachronisms. Somehow, Lanthimos not only gets away with them (particularly in a witty dance scene), they enhance the story. The cinematographer Robbie Ryan also does something that would normally annoy me: exaggerated use of the wide-angle lens. Again, this enhances rather than detracts, both by compressing the insanely elaborate sets so they overwhelm you even more and creating an off-kilter, almost dream-like quality to the story. The dialogue is deliciously acerbic and probably in many cases not appropriate for the age, but that seems irrelevant.
Colman, who deservedly won many awards, including an Oscar for Best Actress, is superb. It is at times a depressing, at times touching portrayal of someone living with chronic illness and unresolved grief. And yet she can be charming and funny. (“Oh, it’s fun to be Queen sometimes” she admits at one point.)
The one who really bowled me over during the first viewing is Weisz. She gives an indelible performance as the ambitious and ruthless Sarah who nevertheless truly loves her childhood friend. Waving pistols and rifles, garbed in men’s clothes, and wearing a patch over her scarred face, she could be a pirate. Which is appropriate, because her character is a kind of pirate. Stone, not a favorite of mine, rises to the occasion and holds her own against these two powerhouses, and does something to a bunny that makes her character almost as heinous as the villain in Fatal Attraction.
The Favourite proves that costume dramas don’t have to stodgy, overlong, or focused mainly on men. They also don’t have to be spoofs to be cool and fun.