As the philosophy of politically correct triumphs, the film The Favourite has the virtue of being wicked. It is a merciless portrait of three women who crave supremacy and success that devour their very existence. Worse than men, they conduct turkey shoots like mercenaries. Liars, they hatch plots, spy and use each other as weapons.
The lesbian queen. The queen and her minions. The queen in decay. The story, although Lanthimos confirms he took plenty of liberties in its interpretation, declaring it as a ‘conscious anachronistic falsehood’, is actually quite faithful to the facts, namely to the story of the reign of the last Stuart on the British throne, Queen Anne. Crowned on 8 March 1702 and passing away in 1714 in Kensington Palace, under her reign there was the unification of England and Scotland to make the Kingdom of Great Britain, in 1707. There has never been proof of the speculation about the monarch’s lesbianism, which becomes the pivot of Lanthimos’s film. However, the excessive power of Sarah Churchill, née Jennings, the first duchess of Marlborough (played by Rachel Weisz) over the disturbed Queen Anne is well documented, ending with her exile from the court in 1711. For years, Sarah was ‘Mistress of the Robes’ and facilitated the military career of her husband John Churchill. The couple received Blenheim Palace, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, as a gift from the queen, still the property of the Churchill family today. Anna Stuart embodies the typical gout-ridden fin de race. Thirteen miscarriages due to Hughes Syndrome, four infants dead before age two and William, Duke of Gloucester, who died aged eleven on 21 July 1700. Infants replaced by as many rabbits bearing their names. Sarah, who begins her decline in the film the moment she feels pity for her impoverished cousin, was never proven to have had any sexual relationship with the Stuart. The queen, who does not look so repugnant in the official portraits by Godfrey Kneller, is a sort of huge painted carcass to Lanthimos.
The wife of prince George of Denmark – and widowed in 1708 – she begs for affection and approval. Anne, known as Brandy Nan for her penchant for alcohol, is covered in makeup and jewelry like an old drag-queen. “You look like a badger”, hisses Lady Sarah to the queen as she pushes her in a wheelchair to a diplomatic meeting. Anna is a tyrant in decline, one which Olivia Colman, who wins as Best Actress at the Oscars 2019, plays in an arpeggio of tics that leave us speechless. A Stuart who tyrannizes and lets herself be tyrannized, who lavishes favor and disfavor on her two rival gentlewomen. She is still the queen nonetheless, and she plays the game, right to the very end. It was probably her erotic involvement with Abigail Hill, former servant in Kent and daughter of a gentleman who died destitute, having lost her at age fifteen in a bet at a game of whist with a fat Danish merchant.
The moral is that flattery, and the art of adulation, always pays with the powerful. The winner, if one exists in this vaudeville of courtship, is Abigail Hill, later Baroness Masham by marriage, the ‘Lady of the Bedchamber’ and ‘Keeper of the Privy Purse’ by royal appointment, who climbs up an incredible social ladder for such a low range and disinherited noblewoman. The film combines comedy and tragedy. In parts, you can see the author’s hand and the darkness of Marlowe or the Elizabethan masque, mixing comedy with mystery, cruelty with contempt, and offering glimpses of livid human nature and humor. A series of plot twists that make the pages of Swift and Daniel Defoe pale in comparison, figures who, like Newton and the poet Alexander Pope, lived in the era as this story. The Favourite is this year’s ace-wins-all, more so than Bohemian Rhapsody. Uncountable awards have been received by this black comedy drama by Yorgos Lanthimos – Athens, 1973 –, a Greek director based in London who, together with Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, is also the author of the screenplay: Grand Jury Prize and Volpi cup for Olivia Colman at the Venice Film Festival, a winner at the Golden Globes, twelve nominations at the 72th Bafta Awards, which took place in February 2019 in London. Ten Oscar nominations, mainly for the trio of actresses, with Colman who wins as best actress in a leading role, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone nominated for best actress in a supporting role.
Lanthimos had accustomed us to different results, with his The Lobster in 2015 and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, two years later. Expert stuff that opened up the doors of the major producers, enabling him to make this film of wide-angle shots, subplots and grotesque visions. It is almost as if Greenaway’s imagery, or certain night sequences in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon are superimposed on All About Eve and Tarantino-style camp.
Editing is by Yorgos Mavropsaridis, while the photography, which alternates brilliance and shadows, is by Robbie Ryan. The soundtrack combines Vivaldi, Purcell and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach with Leonard Bernstein and Skyline Pigeon by Elton John, played on the harpsichord.
A lead role is also played by the costumes by Sandy Powell. Three-time winner of an AcademyAward, Powell has immersed them in black-and-white graphics that accentuate their volume. The garments are early eighteenth century, which in all European courts looked to the example of Louis XIV’s twilight years at Versailles. More baroque are the costumes of the male characters, involved in politics and plots regarding the war between France and England, but mainly intent on activities like duck racing and masquerades. Corsets and trains, marked by white bands on a grid of blacks, thick cottons that simulate silk faille and damasks. Only Abigail, when she arrives at the palace in search of fortune, wears a modest dress in faded shades of blue, which the costume designer made using old jeans, teamed with a shabby straw hat. The costumes appear in stark contrast with the opulence of the interiors in which the story takes place, particularly the royal bedroom, covered with gold thread tapestries on which paintings and portraits hang, with chinoiserie and furnishings.
It is like actually smelling the stench of the sores – the scent of essences and make-up fill our nostrils, the spicy aromas of the food, of chili pepper chocolate and of wood burning in the fireplaces.