The Favourite is a tragicomic masterpiece which delves into the tumultuous personal and political relationships in both Queen Anne’s court and bedchamber. Starring a trio of superb actors, the film explores the themes of female sexuality, manipulation in the upper echelons of society and, of course, the courtier’s constant fight for favour.
Since its release in early January 2019, The Favourite has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards, from Best Actress to Best Cinematography, and it is easy to see why. The Favourite tells an historic story through a modernist lens, allowing us to peek into private affairs and the inner machinations of women not only at court, but in the rumbustious environment of this Alice Wonderland-esque Queendom.
The historic drama tells the story of two women: Duchess Sarah Churchill, played by Rachel Weisz, and Baroness Abigail Masham, played by Emma Stone, vying for the affections of one of Britain’s most tragic but often forgotten monarchs, Queen Anne, played by Olivia Coleman. The relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah is established before the start of the film. Anne is weakened by postpartum depression, driven by the loss of her 17 children, mostly due to antenatal complications, whilst Sarah remains calculating and stoic. As Sarah’s focus on national politics and her husband’s military success takes precedence, temptation captures the Queen’s attention in the form of Abigail. Once a lady, sold into destitution by her gambling father, scullery-maid Abigail fights for the Queen’s favour through manipulation and sexual enticement to become a lady; soon after marrying Baron Masham.
Apart from the obvious and arresting sexual relationships between the characters, which I must note was not remotely gratuitous, The Favourite touches upon depression and a loss of control which becomes applicable to every character at different points in the story. Little is said on the death of Queen Anne’s 17 children, each lost child represented by a rabbit kept in her bedchamber. There are glimpses of Queen Anne’s depression and derangement in her erratic behaviour and scattered thoughts, yet the full extent of her sorrow becomes chillingly obvious through her child-mania – most notably in the scene where she attempts to kidnap a baby from the arms of a wet-nurse – and suicide attempts, all through which Sarah becomes more distant. Meanwhile, Abigail enters the Queen’s mind and bedroom as a new lover and confidant, ultimately igniting Sarah’s political and personal demise.
Robbie Ryan’s cinematography was a stand-out feature for me. He uses wide-angle lenses, bending the frame to resemble the view one would receive when looking through a microscope. We observe this microcosm, portrayed to us as absurd and decadent, typified by the hilarious dancing between Baron Masham and Sarah. Through skewed and blurred camera angles mixed with slowed-down shots, we are made to feel as if we have drank ourselves into this Queendom of perpetual Saturnalia. Whilst these chopping and changing cinematographic features keep us on our toes, they do not detract from the severity of the overarching themes and narrative. The use of comedy in The Favourite is unexpected for a historical drama. I suppose it is used as a consistent source of entertainment, cutting through the sombre scenes where Queen Anne’s psyche grows evermore fragile.
Facing both physical and mental illness, Queen Anne was mostly chamber-bound, allowing screenwriters, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, to limit the locations in the film to a mere few rooms within the palace grounds. The matriarchal power struggles in the bedchamber clash with the male-lead world of court and politics. Despite what must be 90% of the screen-time going to the female characters, there are underlying patriarchal structures that influence the actions and focus of the three main characters. Be it, opportunist politician, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), court-playboy Baron Masham (Joe Alwyn) or warrior Duke of Marlborough / Sarah’s husband (Mark Gatiss), women must pay lip-service to the political, sexual and military desires of the men who surround them.
Abigial’s social ascendancy and Sarah’s demise occur in conjunction, each progressing towards their completion with each new chapter. I appreciated this structural format. In a way, it represents the format of a chronology, encapsulating the historic tone of the story while providing neat structure of Abigial’s schemes. We understand the full gravity of Sarah’s scoff at Abigail ‘you think you have won?’ after she looses the Queen’s favour and becomes trapped in her subservience as the cyclical winding of the inherently imbalanced relationship between monarch and courtier begin anew. We remember Robert Harley’s poignant words ‘favour is a breeze that shifts direction.’ Whilst Abigail wins power and status, she must fight to maintain it and, unlike Sarah, she cannot rely on love to fuel her compliance in the face of the Queen’s petulance.
The Favourite is entertaining, at times farcical, dramatic, harrowing and, unfortunately, probably true of the life of a woman at court. It is definitely one-to-watch, especially if you are a fan of rabbits.
Screening in cinemas in York.