Films that cover important figures in British history have long been Oscar bait, but there’s never been one quite like The Favourite. This film puts powerful historical women at the forefront and shows their beauty, their grace, and every. single. flaw. It’s a refreshing almost-dramedy to break up the parade of aesthetically-pleasing, slow-paced, period pieces that usually become Oscar fodder.
If you’re starting this film and expecting stunning visuals…you’ll get that, but you’ll also get a bittersweet look into the aristocratic power struggles of women at court, and, specifically, the twisted and somewhat unhealthy relationships between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), and Abigail Churchill (Emma Stone).
Partially based on historical fact, partially embellished for dramatic effect, the film begins with Abigail’s arrival at court. She is young, beautiful, and the impoverished cousin of Lady Marlborough. She sees the depth of the relationship between the queen and her cousin (and the sexual nature of it) and uses her knowledge to gain advantage in the queen’s favour by outing her cousin (somewhat literally).
It’s like Mean Girls, but set in the British Restoration period and with better vocabulary.
The story takes place during Queen Anne’s War, one of a few wars with France (and other countries) for dominance in the New World. Everyone has an agenda, and everyone wants to bend the queen’s ear to further that agenda. Sarah is no different, and she uses her influence to secure support for her husband, who is leading the armed forces in the war. On the other side is Lord Harley, who, as a landowner, doesn’t want doubled taxes to pay for the war, but, of course, he disguises his agenda as “the interest of the common people.”
Eventually, the hard and blunt Sarah is deposed by the sweet and charming Abigail, as subtly as Regina George getting hit by a bus, but, in the end, was Abigail really the favourite? Or just the one the Anne likes the most at the moment?
It’s difficult to say.
The narrative structure is as divided as Anne’s emotions, arranged into seemingly disconnected acts with cryptic title cards. For all that the narrative seems splintered in order to increase the tension between characters, the cinematography, costuming, and lighting are sumptuous.
With the grandeur of court as a backdrop, Olivia Colman’s sickly Anne is a story of contrasts and defied expectations. Where Sarah and Abigail are conventionally beautiful, Anne is frail with legs swollen from gout. Where Sarah and Abigail are practised in being duplicitous while being courteous, Anne is prone to tantrums and fits. We expect Anne to act queenly, but most of the time she is anything but that. She is lonely, desperate for companionship, and quick to hold a grudge. Don’t look for magnanimity in this queen; she doesn’t have the patience for it.
She’s no Regina George or Cady Heron, but she could very well be the bus that wipes out Regina. It’s sad to watch the people she cares about use her as little more than a tool, but that’s how the game of politics are played.
It’s a game, according to Sarah, that she and Abigail have been playing very differently. Abigail seems to have no political aspirations, instead leaving it to men and being content with achieving a high societal standing in court. Her attachment to the queen only survives as long as she benefits from their relationship, whereas Sarah has political aspirations, but also seemingly cares very much for Anne.
Is The Favourite just another period piece with pretty dresses, or is it a subtle commentary on how there are no winners in politics? Who knows, but as Lord Harley says:
Favor is a breeze that shifts direction all the time.
The Favourite is nominated for ten Academy Awards, including nods for each of the starring actresses.