Dubious History, But Great Acting In ‘The Favourite’


A small, clever movie, The Favourite, is playing in many theaters in the area, and seeing it is worthwhile. It has several of the best female performances of the year and is a great period piece, just the way the British can make them. Of course, it should be noted that director Yorgos Lathimos has altered events to make what is probably more fun than reality. One of the actors remarked that he had studied the history of the time to give a better performance but was told not to worry, they had their own story.

Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), the uneducated daughter of King James II, was on the British throne as part of the deal called the Glorious Revolution. He was kicked out of England in 1689 because he was Catholic and had a son who would be raised Catholic. His older daughter and her husband, William and Mary of Holland, took over. Both died, leaving Anne, a Protestant married to a Danish prince, on the throne.

She was, at the time the film shows, in poor health. She had had 17 pregnancies and only one child survived longer than a short time, and that one had died at age 11. She also had gout and an eye condition, which limited her mobility but not her appetite. As a result, she was obese. Not educated, politicians ran her life. Her favorite was Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), a childhood friend, who along with her husband were named Duke and Duchess of Marlborough (those interested should know she was an ancestor of both Winston Churchill and Lady Diana Spencer). She and Queen Anne were close, but Sarah often publicly chastised the Queen. In private, they were far closer, and she used the friendship to push the politics of the Whig Party. Director Lathimos essentially turns them into lovers for the film.

Then along comes Sarah’s poor country cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) who uses her wiles to move from being a kitchen maid to a more official maid and then eventually Anne’s personal maid. She uses the political disputes of the War of Spanish Succession to connect with the Tories, the great landowners who opposed the war. She also treated Anne far better than Sarah, eventually displacing the older woman. Abigail’s backstairs negotiations with Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) to betray her cousin while getting support for her to marry a nobleman she cares little about, Masham (Joe Alwyn), is chilling.

Many things in the film are based on facts. Those are mostly simplified, like the struggles between Whigs and Tories being relegated solely to disagreements on the war. The film is far more interested in the personal relationships between the three women and that, of course, is mostly fictional. There are a few bits that are historical, the rest mainly put in to titillate. There is a long bit when Abigail poisons Sarah, who is stricken while on horseback and is eventually found in a brothel where she is told how, in explicit detail, she will pay back the owners. That never seemed to have been recorded by history and probably would have been.

That should not take anything away from brilliant acting. Colman is superb as Queen Anne. There is a lot of talk about an Oscar nomination, and she certainly deserves it. We actually feel sorry for her, even though she whines throughout and is weak and vacillating. But she is clearly the center of the film, holding it together. Stone is perfect as Abigail. She is sweet and, of course, beautiful, but she lets us see how manipulative and uncaring she really is. Weisz is ferocious. She coddles Anne at times, she slaps her, beats her, humiliates her. Yet there is a real relationship there. In the long run, politics is what destroys Sarah’s relationship with the queen.

I am glad we live in a country that doesn’t work quite like that. Presidents may have favorite people, but aside from some under the table contracts, not much else is traded… I hope. That is true of both parties. The manipulating in this movie, while fascinating and entertaining, seems scary.

This is a fascinating little film, filled with great acting and a nice sense of dubious history. It is different and a nice change from many of the other films out now. It is worth seeing.