An extended struggle for the Queen’s affection by Richard Jones

A look at The Favourite (R)

favouriteI don’t think I’ve ever sat through a movie which boasts 10 Academy Award nominations. But director Yorgos Lanthimos has produced a masterpiece where the nominations cover just about every possible category.

From Best Actress through to film editing, costume design, original screenplay not to forget Best Film and top director (where Lanthimos gets a guernsey) The Favourite has it all.

I’ll come to the list later but first let’s look at this beautifully crafted – and dressed – movie.

It’s early 18th century England with the nation embroiled in a debilitating, costly war against old enemy, France.

There’s no shortage of debauchery in Queen Anne’s court what with staged duck races around a purpose-built enclosure, a naked courtier being pelted with  pomegranates by other (fully dressed) male courtiers in a specially built enclosure and – of course – stately dances.

Not to mention the c-bomb being dropped at regular intervals.

Anne (Olivia Colman) is ailing as Lanthimos’ eight-chapter story starts spinning with a tense power struggle developing between two rival women courtiers. Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), wife of the much-needed English general the Duke of Marlborough, is the de facto head of government in Anne’s administration. She’s pushing for a doubling of the land tax to fund the war in France and is also enveloped in a love affair with her Queen.

From advising Queen Anne that her make-up makes her “look like a badger” to restricting the access to their monarch of the Whig and Tory politicians, Sarah is very much in charge. Into their lives comes Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) a cousin of Sarah’s whose life in the nobility came crashing down when her father lost the family fortune. Abigail was apparently ‘divorced’ from her family when her father lost a card game and 15-year-old Abigail was his main betting chip.

Abigail climbs up the ladder from scullery maid to Queen’s courtier using a mix of innocence and helpfulness through to downright devious tactics as she assists the Queen with her legs, stiffened and wracked with pain through advanced gout. But Weisz’s Sarah gives as good as she gets using in-jokes and her shared love life with the Queen to keep in with Her Majesty and hold Abigail at bay. Through all this Colman rules, albeit a tad shakily at times. She’s overweight, riddled with gout and depressed.

She shouts and curses at the page boys, devises weird parlour games, presides over stately court balls and even falls over when addressing Parliament as nerves overcome her.

The Queen has a sad family history. We don’t see her husband – Prince George of Denmark, who actually died in 1708 – but we do see her collection of 17 rabbits. Why 17? Well, to mask her unbelievable pain about the deaths of her 17 children and infants she keeps the rabbits as reminders.

She explains to Abigail at one stage that her pregnancies and ultimate childbirths stretched “from just blood to some without breath” as still-born infants.

Abigail has one persistent male interloper. However Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) is not seeking romance. He’s the Tory Leader of the opposition and needs information: what are Sarah and her Whig parliamentary favourites planning to do, with the Queen’s approval, about the land tax and other weighty matters of state. Harley and his parliamentary colleagues are demanding a peace treaty with France “to save money and lives.”

Abigail, meanwhile, is promoted to Keeper of the Privy Purse, while Sarah (as the Duchess) is forced to spend extended periods at the Marlborough’s grand country estate. 

Colman is superb as Queen Anne. Her cantankerous outbursts when she reminds everyone within earshot that she is the Queen, to her whispered feelings of pain about her dead children to her touching moments with her lovers, Sarah and Abigail.

Stone negotiates the shift in direction from humble maid to leading courtier with aplomb.

And Weisz is great. She keeps her enemies close and depicts a steely resolve. One scene is memorable. She tosses the contents of a bookshelf at the upstart Abigail while retaining her duchess’s haughtiness.

And what about those Oscar nominations. Here they are: Best Picture, original screenplay (Aussie Tony McNamara is included here), production design, cinematography, film editing and costume design. Then there’s the Best Actress category for Olivia Colman as Queen Anne and Best Supporting Actress with both Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz listed along with Lanthimos for Best Director. It’s an extraordinary achievement and by the law of averages alone The Favourite must garner a few Oscars at the end of this month.

There’s only a few, short weeks to go before we’ll all know who’s won what.

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