Certain Histories Have Been Taken With the Liberty

The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018)

Among the trailers before this film was one for a new Mary Queen of Scots/Elizabeth I movie, clearly framed around the sizzling moment when they met — accept, of course, in real life they didn’t and Mary spoke French and Scots as far as I recall. Sometimes this kind of historical accuracy bothers me, along with fluid geography, but don’t learn history from a film without a dollop of scepticism.

Certainly don’t learn it from Lanthimos, whose previous film The Killing of a Sacred Deer apparently makes sense if you know a classical intertext. Frankly, I even went in under the misapprehension that it was about Anne of Denmark, rather than of the chairs, cabinet and early copyright ilk. She’s tucked away in history as queen at the start of the eighteenth century, somewhere around Gulliver’s Travels, daughter of Charles II’s brother and succeeded by George. She was married, to Prince George of Denmark, whose death is presumably shifted to before the events of the film.

Clearly it is a precarious time for women — she is queen in her own right, but suffers gout, poor eyesight and has borne seventeen children, all now deceased (and in the film she now has seventeen rabbits, who steal several scenes). With England at war with France, she attempts to instruct her (male) politicians of the Whig and Tory factions, in practice being advised by Sarah Churchill, wife of the Duke of Marlborough.

Into this context comes Sarah’s cousin, Abigail Hill, whose father lost her in a card game, now seeking the revival of her fortunes at court. Abigail moves herself into the affections of the Queen and — having discovered Anne and Sarah were lovers — her bed. Abigail is pressured by the Tories into supporting their cause and is increasingly Machiavellian in her attempt to be centre of the court, whilst Sarah realises she has a fight on her hands to stay on top.

All three characters — I suspect much of this is authorial invention — are players, alternatively vulnerable and cruel, willing to lie, happy to switch positions 180 degrees on a dime, able to hold their own against men despite supposed physical fragility (and Abigail bests Masham if not the Tory Harley in fights and has the upper hand on the wedding night). The film even risks a couple of jokes about rape, along with liberal use of the c-word.

Lanthimos gets away with thanks to at least three great actors.

Colman is fantastic in almost everything she’s been in — Rev, Broadchurch, The Night Manager — and I’m relieved she wasn’t cast as the Doctor because think of all the great stuff we’d then miss. She seems fearless — charming, spiteful, devastating, warm, covered in spittle, riddled with gout and doubt, apparently willing to fake a faint. She anchors the film, paradoxically gaining in power even when apparently under the spell of Abigail (spoiler: bunny cruelty is the turning point).

Weisz as Sarah is the Cecil to her Elizabeth, clearly understimated by the men, although has a corrupt side if we take late revelations at face value. (I’m not sure we can.) She was the femme fatale in My Cousin Rachel, the flawed lead in Denial, and was in the Mummy films with Brendan Fraser. She’s a DuMaurian disapproving housekeeper, the female boss who pulls up the ladder. Apparently she’s playing James Miranda Barry. The sharp shooting, sharp tongued character is easier to admire than like, and I didn’t feel her slide to the wrong side of history made her more sympathetic.

And these roles work because of Emma Stone, who I hated in La La Land, mainly because I hated the film. She’s playing the ingenue, but made ruthless because she’s had to be so to survive. At first she’s victim of practical jokes and political jabs, but she knows how to help the queen and she “accidentally” lets the queen know this. She is a player rather than being played.

The male characters are largely auxiliary, foolish and foppish, vainer than any of the women here. Sometimes they steal scenes — the duck race and the duck walker, a surreal orange throwing sequence at court, circumscribed for once by female power. Husbands are sidelined.

I’d gotten out of the habit of going to see films over the last year, but this at least has motivated me to go back and, of course, finally track down a copy of The Lobster.


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