SHE’S PETULANT AND childish, given to fits of rage and gout, and free enough in her sense of authority to lie on the floor and bawl or arbitrarily end someone’s working career, on a whim. Meet Queen Anne, a larger-than-life articulation of the unleashed lascivious baud and out-of-control decadence in the 18th century world in which she lived. Portrayed by Olivia Colman with deep sympathy and total conviction, she is magnetic, and punctuates every frame in The Favourite – even ones where she is not present.
This film, based on the controversial histories of this British queen, is compelling and revolting at the same time. It is like indulging in rich sweet puddings with sugar encrusted toppings and lashings of marzipan until you vomit. And that, it seems, is the point. The unrelenting adornment, on the characters’ costumes, on the internal walls of the palace, in the wigs of the men are so elaborate that it feels beyond the pale. Look into the pre-history of the French Revolution, however, and you will realise that much of this was indeed the case, where the ruling forces of royalty, rotten with nepotism and a sense of their own importance, had lost their moral compass completely.
It’s the kind of rococo opulence you may recall from films such as Stephen Frears 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons or Amadeus adapted for screen by Peter Shaffer in 1984, only more lavish and grotesque. And the cinematographer here, though he has a very fine understanding of light, gets too carried away with his fisheye lens, allowing the dizzying pall of flamboyance to be offset with standard camera tricks. There are too many flashes around the queen’s bedroom and this element of the work becomes like an inside joke.
Having said that, this tale of ascendancy and greed represents a complex and sex-focused penning together of holes in the documented histories. Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) is the queen’s close friend and political advisor. The queen, you understand, is not a terribly sophisticated woman. She’s also not well. Having weathered some 17 fruitless pregnancies, like Queen Victoria, represented in Frears’s 2017 film Victoria and Abdul, Queen Anne was caught in the protocols of royalty and much of her gynaecological disorders were left unaddressed. Understandably, then, she’s bad tempered, overweight and unhappy, and Sarah is more deeply entrenched in the royal task of pleasuring the queen than you know.
But the queen in her context of 18th century Britain, is politically very powerful. She sits on this throne and wears this crown not because of her extreme talents or wisdom, but because she was born to it. And this film tears open the horrifying legacy that this level of crude intermarriage and royalty represents to the world. Anne’s scenario sees war with France and conflict between Tory and Whig values, but Anne is not sufficiently equipped for these battles of words with consequences that see men being slaughtered in battle. It’s all above her. But it isn’t above Marlborough. And the queen becomes an instrument of power. Replete with her 17 bunnies in cages.
Enter Abigail (Emma Stone). This young woman has a complex history, possibly interwoven with untruths, naked ambition and a psychopathic need to serve herself. She will stoop to any level if the rewards are sufficiently promising. She boasts a blood line linking her to royalty, but one in which she, or her father, fell from grace, reducing her to some kind of a courtesan. Armed with a whole range of skills, across from a wanking man in a carriage, she arrives.
And rising with her own wiles and maverick tactics through stinking mud to a position of extreme potency in the queen’s ear and other orifices, Abigail is able to flex her monstrosity horrifyingly.
A yarn that takes you through the mires of forbidden love and unmitigated cruelty and humiliations, it is speckled with mad little episodes involving birdshot, blood oranges, duck races and mud baths, and will keep you focused, if not revolted. Skittering on the edge between humour and abjection, the work is not for one with a queasy stomach. But Colman deserves the Oscar. Hands down.
- The Favourite is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and features a cast headed by Edward Aczel, Joe Alwyn, Peter Brookes, Olivia Colman, Willem Dalby, Faye Daveney, Emma Delves, Anthony Dougall, Basil Eidenbenz, Ben English, Liam Fleming, Mark Gatiss, Gavin Henderson, Angela Hicks, Horatio the Duck, Nicholas Hoult, Timothy Innes, Djordje Jovanovic, Sam Kemp, Callum Lewin, John Locke, Denise Mack, James Melville, Hana McDowell, Martin Pemberton, James Perrin, Wilson Radjou-Pujaite, Jenny Rainsford, Carolyn Saint-Pé, James Smith, LillyRose Stevens, Emma Stone, Paul Swaine, Everal Walsh, Rachel Weisz, Jennifer White, Luca Wiseman and Declan Wyer. It is written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Produced by Cecil Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Yorgos Lanthimos and Lee Magiday, it features creative input by Robbie Ryan (cinematography), Yorgos Mavropsaridis (editing), Dixie Chassay (casting), Fiona Crombie (production design) and Sandy Powell (costumes). Release date, through Cinema Nouveau, Ster Kinekor: February 1, 2019.