Let’s be clear. Queen Anne is the central character in this latest offering from Yorgos Lanthimos and Olivia Colman is the lead actress. In the midst of awards season, there has been much debate about which of the performers who feature as the three women at the centre of the narrative should be considered (or indeed eligible) in the nomination process for lead actress recognition at the various prize-giving ceremonies that take place in Hollywood (and elsewhere) at this time of year. Whilst Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone play significant roles as the two women fighting for the attentions of the Queen, they are very much the supporting players to Colman’s utterly unselfconscious performance as a monarch crippled by physical, intellectual and psychological shortcomings that put her at the mercy of those with conflicting personal and/or political agendas. Following up The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos delivers an eccentric, entertaining and uniquely absurdist period drama that underplays the sumptuousness of aristocratic life.
Based very loosely on true events, The Favourite focuses on one of the lesser-known English monarchs who reigned in the early 1700s during the war with France. Anne is an irritable figure debilitated by gout and poor health generally that sees her confined to a wheelchair. With a soft spot for desserts and tending her 17 rabbits, each of which fills an emotional void for one of her failed pregnancies, Anne entrusts the running of the household and the country to her childhood friend and lover Lady Sarah Churchill (Weisz), the only person brave enough to be honest with Anne, even if it means telling her that her eyeshadow makes her look like a badger. Upon the arrival of Lady Sarah’s less fortunate cousin Abigail (Stone) an ex-aristocrat forced to accept a position as a servant, the tentative affections between the two women gradually grow into something much more poisonous. Sarah permits Abigail to work in the kitchen, but when she is able to offer up a remedy to Anne that will alleviate her aches and pains, Abigail soon finds herself rising through the ranks of the servants and advisers to emerge as a possible threat to Sarah as the favourite.
A few male characters flitter in and out of the picture, most notably Prime Minister Godolphin (James Smith) and Opposition Leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) who spend almost all of their time on screen arguing about whether or not to prolong the war. While Harley argues that the country risks bankruptcy if it doesn’t achieve a state of peace, the palace certainly doesn’t show any signs that money is tight with tapestries and paintings adorning the walls and a ballroom that is the focal point of extravagant parties. The screenplay from Deborah Davis and Australia’s Tony McNamara is brimming with spiteful put-downs more than a little less-than-regal vocabulary, but it ensures that none of the three women are presented as one-dimensional schemers, giving each of the performer plenty to work with in making their character sympathetic.
Colman’s Anne is poignant, exasperating and very funny, a childlike woman trapped in a failing body (she died in 1714 at the age of 49), while both Weisz and Stone lend terrific support as the two combatants with their eyes on the prize. Despite its absurdities, this juicy tale of political and sexual intrigue is still believable. Sure, it might not appeal to those who prefer their costume dramas of the stiff-upper-lip variety, but might just prove to be Lanthimos’s most accessible and successful black comedy yet. The humour fluctuates from wry and cynical to sheer slapstick, but there is always an element of humanity in this sparkling costume comedy that will leave you conflicted about with whom your sympathies lie.