I studied history in college, and I used to be a real stickler for historical accuracy in movies. And then I began to understand that playing around a little bit with history can be quite a lot of fun and make for some great cinema. That isn’t to say that The Favourite is terribly inaccurate historically, it’s just that it does some cheeky things that a period piece can do: it tells a story about an important figure/event while throwing in just enough modern behaviors to remind us that historical figures were human and were much more like us than unlike us. In other words, it makes history unstuffy.
For example, Emma Stone’s Abigail walking down an elaborately decorated hallway whispering, “Fuck. Fuck!” after a scheme has gone wrong is deliciously relatable. Most of us have probably not tried to manipulate a queen into cutting out our rival for her affections and, therefore, political power, but many of us have expressed ourselves similarly when something goes not-quite-right at work.
The Favourite is about the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman), who ruled England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1702-1707, and her relationships with two women: Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone). At the beginning of the film, Anne has a close relationship with Sarah which is both emotionally and sexually intimate. Abigail, a cousin of Sarah and once a lady whose family has fallen from grace after her father’s gambling problems, asks her cousin for a job at Anne’s court. Unaware of her cousin’s capacity for vicious ambition, she grants her cousin work and even helps her get close to Anne. Eventually, Abigail takes Sarah’s place as Anne’s preferred companion.
That sounds like a terrible, clichéd story of female competition. Except that this is anything but a clichéd story. There is the obvious exception that the two women are competing for the affections of another woman and the power that comes with that but there is also a matter-of-factness and a deep exploration of character that makes this film unique. There are no real protagonists or antagonists. There are people looking out for their own best interests who often behave selfishly but also understandably.
Queen Anne has lost multiple children; she has pet rabbits in her room to represent these children. She is needy and her ignorance of political matters represents some danger to her kingdom, but we feel sympathy for Anne. We understand why she craves so much affection.
Abigail was put up as a bet and lost by her father during a card game to a “balloon-shaped German” who repeatedly raped her. Having suffered through a sexually traumatic past, we understand why she fights so hard for security. We understand why she feels she has to be duplicitous, manipulative, and very nearly murderous to get it.
Sarah was my favorite character, which might have something to do with my deep love for Rachel Weisz. She might initially be easy to dislike; she’s brusque and unaffectionate. She seems (and maybe is) manipulative. But she also is basically running the kingdom because Anne either can’t or doesn’t want to. She spends a lot of her time taking care of Anne’s gout and other ailments and obviously believes in her husband’s military work as the way to the security of England. It becomes apparent that, although she has a tough exterior, she very clearly loves the queen and her country and is doing what she can to care for them.
In a way, it reminds me of All About Eve. Although that film is about mid-1900s American Broadway players and The Favourite is about early 1700s English courtiers, they are both women-centered films about ambition and insecurity. They are both no-nonsense, smartly written, with hilarious, sharp quips at every turn.
The Favourite isn’t really anyone’s front-runner for Best Picture, although I think it has an excellent and well-deserved chance at Best Original Screenplay and all three actresses are nominated. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Coleman wins for Best aActress.
But really, as I’ve said repeatedly, the Academy Awards feels very unpredictable this year and I would be neither shocked nor unhappy if The Favourite wins Best Picture.
What to make: There is a lot of decadence and excess in this film. Anne has what is probably diabetes which is bad news for her love of cake and hot chocolate. I’m no great lover of sweets, but I think cake and/or hot chocolate would be a welcome addition to any party.
And don’t just bring some powdered hot chocolate, either. Bring the good stuff, the real chocolate.