Warning: Review reveals an aspect of the movie’s premise which may be considered a spoiler.
I like to think I’m more knowledgeable about American history than most. I have a degree in the subject after all and I do find myself reading a fair number of books about it since then. I cannot, however, necessarily say the same thing about British history and especially not pre-20th Century British history. I do know a little more about certain eras of interest like Henry VIII’s tumultuous reign and I guess the handful of kings that Shakespeare wrote plays about and I suppose I have a cursory knowledge of William the Conquerer and The War of the Roses and a few other events but at a certain point it becomes very hard to keep track of all the monarchs, parliaments, and reformations that have happened in that country in the last two thousand years. I don’t exactly feel terrible about that given that it’s not a country I live in. In theory there’s no particular reason I should know more about English history than, say, Chinese history but nonetheless I do take in a lot more popular culture from and about the United Kingdom and occasionally I feel a little more unsteady than I would when watching period pieces set in the United States. Take the new film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, which is set in the early 1700s during the reign of Queen Anne. I had probably heard the name “Queen Anne” at some point before but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much of anything about her. So the film, titled The Favourite, is something of an education for me… or is it?
The film begins with a woman named Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arriving at the court of Queen Anne (Oliva Coleman) in hopes of getting some sort of job there. Hill is of noble birth but her family has fallen because of some terrible decisions by her father and she is basically penniless. Her hope is that her distant relative, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), will give her some sort of assistance. The Duchess is not a person to be trifled with. She’s wily and tough as nails and she’s also more or less become the right hand woman to the queen, who is depicted here as smart but sickly and perhaps a bit loony from her life of privilege and indulgence. Hill does manage to get a job as a lowly palace maid but soon the duchess finds something of a kinship with Hill. The Duchess gives her a better job in the palace and also invites Hill to join her in recreational live pigeon shooting. Soon though, Hill comes to learn that the duchess and the queen are not merely confidants but are in fact also lesbian lovers. Seeing an opening, Hill comes up with a plan to supplant the duchess as the queen’s favorite subject and to use that to return herself to the nobility.
Like I said, my knowledge of British history in this period is minimal, so when I finished the movie I had just assumed that this was a fictional story set in the time period. However, when I started poking around on Wikipedia it became clear that there actually is a lot more genuine history here than I thought. The Duchess of Marlborough and Abigail Hill were real people, their circumstances were about the same as what’s depicted here, and they really did fight for the queen’s favor as well. Where the film differs from the history record is in speculating that these three were engaging in a lesbian love triangle, which appears to have been something that was rumored at the time but for which little hard evidence exists. The movie is also basically engaging speculation in depicting the motives of the two women who may or may not have been as power hungry in real life. That said historical accuracy is probably a secondary concern here as Yorgos Lanthimos does not treat the film as a historical reenactment and instead injects it with a lot of modern energy. The film’s dialogue is not distractingly anachronistic but it isn’t filled with “thees” and “thous” and “prithees” either and the screenplay does not shy away from having the characters use various vulgarities that would not make it into the history books. The film also uses some stranger elements of life in this period are also emphasized for comedic effect like the nobility’s apparent pastime of duck racing.
This unconventional take on the period piece reminded me a bit of The Death of Stalin, which leaned even heavier into anachronistic language and was a generally broader comedy, but the Armando Iannucci project that the movie really reminded me of was his HBO series “Veep” in the way that the characters are self-interested vipers that are constantly playing chess with their adversaries. Unlike Iannucci’s comedies, which tend to take place in worlds where anyone and everyone has their eyes on the prize, in this movie no one except for the main trio at the center really seems to stand a chance. That’s especially true of all the men in the court who are primarily represented by a pair of groveling politicians and a conceited military officer, all of them made to look like comical fops by the ridiculous fashion of the day which involved gigantic wigs and unappealing purple jackets. That rather feminized appearance is quite intentionally contrasted with the women in the movie, who are slightly musicalized power players that ride horses and take up target shooting in their free time. The movie is not in denial that this was not the gender dynamic of the vast majority of people in this time and whenever any of them leave the bubble of Queen Anne’s court they start to face the same dangers that women generally faced in the wider world, but while they’re in the palace they pretty much only view each other as a threat. Of course all of this would have a slightly different ring to it if the queen was a king and the two women were involved in a love triangle with a man, but as a lesbian triangle the monarch’s behavior feels less like exploitation and more like a game that they’re all sort of willingly entering into.
Another thing that differentiates the film from Iannucci’s work is that Yorgos Lanthimos is certainly not going to let it have the same kind of televisual “comedy first” look that Iannucci’s projects tend to have and is instead bringing his own brand of weirdness to the film. I’ve been a little agnostic about Lanthimos’ two English language films so far, I admired their unique vision but was also alienated (mostly in a bad way) by the peculiar nature of how his characters spoke and acted. Things are different this time around, certainly in part because he’s working with a screenplay written by others this time around but I think also because this material just works really well for him. The characters seem to be heightened in just the right way and you feel like their quirks are specific to them rather than the whole of the film’s world and things that might otherwise just feel like Lanthimosian flights of fancy here just feel like aspects of this strange time and place. It’s certainly his most accessible film though that is relative and I’m sure it will feel plenty strange to people who haven’t experienced The Killing of a Sacred Deer or The Lobster, so I wouldn’t think of it as any kind of sell-out scenario and it won’t be for everyone. Still, the movie is clearly an excellent twist on the conventional costume drama and one that will be starting some very interesting conversations throughout the year.
****1/2 out of Five