MATTHEW BOND FILM OF THE WEEK
ECert: 15 1hr 59mins
ven for those who only go to the cinema half a dozen times a year, The Favourite is one of those films you simply have to see. With its 18thcentury foppery, baroque soundtrack and uncompromisingly clever repartee, it will be too rich a cake for some. But it has three of the best female acting performances you’ll see in 2019.
It’s directed by the Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, who made both The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, but this is more crowd-pleasing and straightforward in style than either of those. It has already won ten British Independent Film awards and picked up a similar number of nominations from the London Critics’ Circle. And no doubt helped by the fact that Emma Stone is one of that trio of actresses (not only does the Arizona-born Oscar winner sound convincingly English, she looks it too), it has five Golden Globe nominations and three from the Screen Actors Guild, the latter celebrating all three of those dazzling performances – Stone’s and co-stars Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman.
It is Colman who plays the central but historically often overlooked figure of Queen Anne, who by the time the film gets under way is widowed, mentally and physically frail and increasingly 16 reliant on the company and counsel of her long-standing friend and confidante, Sarah Churchill, Lady Marlborough (Weisz). But where cautious historians have speculated, here the screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara plunges straight in: the two women weren’t just friends, it asserts, they were lovers too. There is some historical basis for this suggestion, not least in the letters (for discretion, the pair addressed each other as Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley) and writings that a by-then rather bitter Sarah published after the Queen’s death. Indeed, books and plays have already been written about their relationship, but whether it was quite as full-on as depicted here (the two women’s bed chambers are connected by a secret passageway) is open to doubt. But, for the purposes of this drama, it is into this cauldron of sexual and political scheming (the Tories and Whigs are locked in endless disputes over the War of the Spanish Succession, the Brexit of its day) that Abigail (Stone), a distant and newly impoverished cousin of Sarah, is pitched when she comes looking for a job at court. Here, Lanthimos and his screenwriters have taken a big historical liberty, with Stone playing Abigail very much as a sexy and resourceful English rose – a forerunner of Thackeray’s adventuress, Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, if you like – rather than as described in contemporary accounts, ‘plain and with a red nose’.
Cunning, manipulative and happy to use her tousled blonde charms to find favour with both men and women, Abigail is soon out to supplant her cousin, both in the Queen’s affections and, indeed, her bed. But Sarah is a formidable opponent.
In terms of style, there are distinct echoes here of Peter Greenaway’s wonderfully outrageous film The Draughtsman’s Contract, what with the wigs, fruity language (be warned – the c-word features large) and aristocratic naughtiness, while the drama, with all the courtly manoeuvrings for power, will remind many of The Madness Of King George.
Not that Anne is insane – despite her brief passion for lobster racing – but she does
Clockwise, from top left: Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as Sarah Churchill and Abigail; Weisz; Olivia Colman as Queen Anne; Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford