Olivia Colman has won a Golden Globe for her sublime performance as Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos's wildly entertaining comedy of royal manners. A scabrous tale that takes gleeful liberties with historical fact, 'The Favourite' has received 12 BAFTA nominations in this year's list. Though rooted in events that really did take place in Queen Anne's court at the beginning of the 18th century, the film sets out to tell a story about love and power, unconstrained by insider sensibilities.
Lanthimos ('The Lobster'; 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer') is Greek and has lived in London for a number of years. Being an outsider is an advantage in a genre stuffed with too much attention to period detail and too little sense of the absurd. Bringing to bear his outsider eye on the barbaric rituals of the last Stuart royal court (after which, Hanoverians would reign Britain, England and Scotland having been united by the 1707 Act of Union) the director presents a society full of artifice and deceit that is in a permanent state of near hysteria and riven with petty jealousies. He and his brilliant screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara take a playful approach to historical reconstruction, their erudite filthy script positively revelling in anachronisms.
The plot focuses on the behind-the-scenes politics of two cousins vying for power in Queen Anne's court: Rachel Weisz is Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, the Queen's initial favourite and adviser. With an increasingly ailing Queen, she basically runs England. Anne and Sarah were childhood friends and have pet names for each other – Mrs Morley (Anne) and Mrs Freeman (Sarah). Emma Stone ('La La Land') is Sarah's impoverished younger cousin, Abigail Hill, who comes to court in search of employment, having been gambled away by her aristocrat father.
Abigail arrives at court covered in horse manure, booted out of a carriage in which the man opposite shamelessly shoves his hand inside his pants, ogling her. 'It is I, Abigail,' says she, standing there, flies buzzing about her head. 'Friends of yours?' quips cousin Sarah who takes her under her wing after putting her to work as a scullery maid and before recognising her as the rival she will become.
Abigail has big plans for herself. At first she makes herself useful by preparing a herbal poultice to soothe the ailing Queen's swollen ulcerated legs. Browsing in the library one night she overhears Anne and Sarah sharing an intimate moment. A prolonged close-up of Abigail's face reveals her feverishly calculating how to use this new gossip fodder to her advantage. She grabs her chance and eventually supplants her kinswoman as the sovereign's confidante and bedfellow.
Stone's impeccable English accent, with subtle lisp, is astonishing. So too is her capacity gradually to disclose her character in the course of the film, from apparently sweet innocent to ruthless schemer, as capable of squashing a fluffy rabbit under foot as poisoning a blood relative. But we are not allowed to forget for one moment what lies in store for a pretty, penniless girl in Abigail's position, however elevated her background. Without money or status through marriage, Abigail's body is there for the taking.
Rachel Weisz, too, plays Lady Churchill as a woman who knows how hard she has to fight to remain in control. Ambitious wife of military commander John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss) who is absent from court for most of the film leading the war against France, Sarah pushes for heavy taxes on landowners to fund the war. She also referees disputes between Whig parliamentary leader Godolphin (James Smith) and leader of the Tory opposition, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult). She cannot afford a moment of weakness: the brothel can be just a drink or a fall from a horse away, as the film ably demonstrates.
The acting of the three lead players is outstanding. Weisz and Stone are verbally witty and physically dexterous, whilst Colman gives the performance of a lifetime. Comic and heartbreaking in equal measure, committing herself totally to Anne's ridiculousness, she still manages to bring out aspects of the Queen that make our hearts bleed. Brought down by grief, bound by tradition, and imprisoned in her recalcitrant gout-ridden, bulimic body, she still has a spark of life, at least in Sarah's company.
Most of the filming takes place in and around Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, its Great Hall's chequered black and white marble floor providing inspiration for production designer Fiona Crombie's colour palette. All of the costumes are in black and white – a reinvention by Sandy Powell of her previous unconventional creations for Tilda Swinton's character in Sally Potter's 1992 film, 'Orlando'. In 'The Favourite' Sarah's 'feminine' gowns contrast with her 'masculine' outdoor recreational outfit of silver grey frock coat and white-feather-sprigged black hat.
Robbie Ryan's cinematography makes Hatfield House interiors look like Caravaggio paintings, sometimes warped and twisted through a fish-eye lens to queasy effect, whilst 18th- and 19th-century grandeur is blended with 20th-century Pop Art and 21st-century fabrics, to gorgeous effect.
Lanthimos wanted the women in the film to have natural hair and faces (a lack of make-up that is immediately apparent) and for the men to be the background decoration. This reversal of the normal run of things is hilariously delivered in costume designer Sandy Powell's outrageously rouged court dandies sporting wigs the size and texture of small dead sheep. The difference between Tory and Whig is signalled by blonde and dark wig, respectively, as the film gleefully bends all the conventions of the carriages-and-country-houses costume drama.
A screenplay full of cruel put downs and unregal language is helped along by a soundtrack of relatively contemporary classical music by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Purcell, interspersed with later composers such as Messiaen. Inexplicably, Elton John's 'Skyline Pigeon' plays over the end credits, and an occasional single plucked metallic note lends a sinister undertow to the comic script. Even before the start of the film, and after the credits have rolled, we hear ambient sounds like a fox screeching and rustlings in the undergrowth.
Any film whose cast credits include 'Wanking Man', 'Fastest Duck in the City' and 'Nude Pomegranate Tory' – the last named involving a parlour game where a naked man clutching his genitals is pelted with juicy pomegranates by braying courtiers – is not going to be a conventional period piece. How many costume dramas would use some of the best quips in the film as onscreen chapter headings to structure the story? Headings such as 'This Mud Stinks' and 'I Dreamt I Stabbed You in the Eye'.
Yet 'The Favourite' should not be mistaken for a pantomime. Funny and filthy though it is, it is more akin to tragedy. Colman's ailing, spoilt, bereft, heart-broken Queen is the end result of the demand to produce an heir, resulting in 17 dead babies, through miscarriage, stillbirth, dying in infancy or, for one sickly boy, death at the age of 11. She lavishes affection instead on 17 pet rabbits that lollop about her chambers. Any amount of bad behaviour seems forgivable in light of this. After being told by honest Sarah early in the film that her eye make-up makes her look like a badger, she turns, spitting viciously at a poor pageboy, 'Did you look at me? How dare you look at me? Look at me! Look at me!' It is hilarious and tragic. Only Olivia Colman could convey such misery, abjection and fury in so few lines.
Animals play a strong supporting role in 'The Favourite'. Lovely ducks with silk ribbons are made to run a race by a gaggle of whooping aristocrats, the winner later reappearing as a pet in the arms of chief minister Godolphin. Sarah and Abigail enjoy a form of clay pigeon shooting but with real birds whose blood splatters Sarah's face. Lanthimos exposes the gratuitous cruelty of such pursuits. But it is not until the film's disquieting final scene that his message is laid bare.
The real Queen Anne died soon after suffering a stroke. A drooping mouth marks this increasing infirmity in the film's closing frames. In the final sequence, commanding the new favourite to rub her painful legs, Anne grasps Abigail's hair, shoving her head down, in a gesture that says everything. The scales have fallen from her eyes. Abigail is a liar, not the sweet creature she believed her to be. And Abigail knows that the Queen knows this, although the Queen doesn't know the full extent of her deception. In her hurt belief that Sarah has forsaken her, Anne has banished the only person who truly cared for her.
As Anne digs her hand into Abigail's hair, the image blurs and the women's faces become superimposed onto one another. Then, freakily, the rabbits become part of the collage, in a warped, shifting image that becomes more and more psychedelic before fading to black. In Colman's portrayal of Queen Anne, much of her affection for her lost children is lavished on her pet rabbits, a displacement that Sarah treated as sentimental and macabre, whereas Abigail used the rabbits to curry favour with the queen. With his final shot, Lanthimos shows that Abigail is herself a caged pet, helpless apart from the Queen's favour. Like the bunny she squashed earlier, she is now literally and symbolically under the royal foot.