The long-suffering valiant consort or regnant is the typical image of British queens in cinema; so the life of Queen Anne, with a long reign and a happy marriage despite its miscarriages – offers – at first sight little prospect of great drama; but the darkly comic tale that is The Favourite –director Yorgos Lanthimos makes genius and glory out of the rumoured affair between Queen Anne, and the Duchess of Marlborough. The queen and her erstwhile favourite, played consummately by (Rachel Weisz) intimately engaged in a relationship of power that extends from the bedroom to the courtyards of power and entertainment.
The cosy arrangement between The Duchess and The Queen is soon upset by the arrival of Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), a distant cousin of the duchess who has “fallen far”, as Weisz’s character describes it. It’s the only time the precarious economic conditions of women of the time is alluded to, but such concerns of maintaining economic and social status suffuse this film.
The film keeps itself firmly in the space of the comedic but the darkness, and ultimately tragic subtext to the lives of these women is hinted at in subtle moments; when Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne explains that the seventeen rabbits she keeps are for her lost pregnancies – and the resolute expression of (Weisz) responding to Colman’s obliviously brutal queen – a resignation warranted when the consequences of the Queen’s displeasure are made clear towards the end of the film; this is one of the loveliest achievements of this story, Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne, is mad, sad and bad – but it is her very dependent state that she exploits to consolidate her power through the seemingly empowered but ultimately frail power-brokers in her court.
It’s a refreshing take on the period drama from Yorgos Lanthimos, known for quixotically weird arthouse cinema. He brings that idiosyncratic eye to this film, and what is striking is how a virtue is made of gloominess.
The dialogue is bracingly direct, with seemingly contemporary turn of phrase, but it may actually be truer to the times than the way much period drama presents European history. There is not much of an African or black presence in the film, beyond the decorative, but that did not detract from the enjoyment of this odd, little gem of a story.