December 18, 2018 – I do love the movies, but I'm no Anglophile. One of the things I am not enthusiastic about are the seemingly endless supply of films focused on the personal affairs of people in royal courts who lived hundreds of years ago in a different country. “The Favourite” is one of those.
This film is loosely based on the true story of a bitter Royal Court struggle for power between two women, Abigail Hill (played by Emma Stone of “Battle of the Sexes”) and Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz of “Oz the Great and Powerful”) in England in the early 1700s. Both women are striving to be the favorite of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman of “Murder on the Orient Express”).
The power at stake in this struggle is on a massive scale, wealth, property, the power to wage war, the power of taxation and the power to make or break anyone who isn't a member of the royal family. Abigail is Sarah's impoverished cousin who has fallen on hard times because her father wasted the family fortunes on speculations. Sarah takes Abigail into her household out of pity, and brings her to the royal court, as a lowly scullery maid, after she ascends to power as the Duchess of Marlborough and favorite of the queen.
Sarah is, in effect running England (including Scotland and Ireland) as the power behind the throne. She is also the queen's lover, acting like a dominatrix, ordering the queen to do what she wants, but she overplays her hand and she underestimates the determination of her cousin, Abigail, to do whatever it takes to work her way up the social ladder.
The queen is in poor health, suffering from gout and other ailments. Abigail, wise in the way of herbal remedies, concocts a potion that relieves the queen's pain, and gets assigned to the queen's staff. She then poisons her cousin, causing her to become ill. In Sarah's absence, Abigail takes her place as the queen's favorite.
The battle for power between Abigail and Sarah resumes when Sarah returns to the the royal court. It becomes not just a battle of wills between these two women, but a battle for the love and friendship of the queen, who holds the power to make or break either of the two woman.
This movie is a bawdy exploration of the depths of depravity a person will sink to in order to gain power and money. It depicts the huge gap between the haves and the have nots in this society. It also reveals the inherent corruption in an autocracy when power is granted by right of birth, and that power in turn is shared by others on the basis of personal loyalty, friendship, bribery, deceit or sex, rather than competence.
The movie also provides some insight into the way women were treated back in what some call the good old days. On her way to the palace, a man in the carriage openly masturbates in front of her and others. She is pushed into the mud by men a couple of times in the film. There is a very rough and tumble flirtation in the woods between Agigail and the man she is to marry, Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn of “Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk”). Rape is the subject of casual discussion among men and women, even those of the upper class.
Then there is the clownish behavior of some of the men in the palace (the male characters in this film are mostly vain buffoons or predators). The wigs, the painted faces, the outrageous costumes. Come to think of it, the only thing that really compares to all this preening royal nonsense 300 years ago is what goes on these days in the White House of the United States. So, maybe we haven't really come a long way after all. Maybe this ancient tale of royal intrigue has some relevance today after all.
The performances of Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are really excellent. They inhabit this clownish ancient royal world with gusto and passion. The production values are first-rate, with sumptuous sets and costumes. Director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”) and writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have created a nice balance of drama and bawdy humor. The bawdy humor is a bit reminiscent of the 1963 movie “Tom Jones.”
This is not the best film of year by far, but there are many Anglophiles in Hollywood who vote on awards, so it will probably be nominated for a few Oscars (it already has several Golden Globe nominations) and it may win some as well. This film is a true treat for Anglophiles, particularly those who are familiar with these people and who care about the upper classes. For those of us who could care less about the affairs of the long dead foreign upper classes, this is not nearly so compelling. This film rates a B.
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