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

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