film Review of "The Favourite": The British Royals Have Always Been Scum
It’s amazing how much image-polishing the British ruling class has gotten away with, when you think about it! Generations of imperial murder, torture, rape, and plunder around the globe, and they’re rewarded with an endless procession of fawning tributes favoring their most prominent genocidal warthogs such as Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill.
And how about that ridiculous Windsor clan still cluttering up the British Isles? As the great Irish revolutionary Michael Collins once asked with justifiable irritation, “How did those people ever get an empire?”
If you’ve suffered as I have through this long media nightmare — and I have relatives that subscribe to Royalty Magazine, so you can imagine — The Favourite is a special holiday gift just for you: a weird and wonderful sod-off response to all the many lavish, solemn, toff-worshipping British “heritage films” and TV series centered on the domestic lives of royals and gentry and rich gits of all sorts.
It’s a yuletide joy just to see the most obligatory scene in all “heritage films,” the fancy-dance-in-a-ballroom scene, done right for once. That is, done as farce, with no reverence for period authenticity whatsoever, featuring English nobility in formal dress performing stately jazz hands, hip-hop moves, and poker-faced swing-dance acrobatics.
The Favourite is a scurrilous dark comedy about the early eighteenth-century reign of Queen Anne, last of the Stuart line (played with gusto by Olivia Colman) and the brutal true-life rivalry between her “favorite” from childhood, the formidable Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s fresh-faced country cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). Abigail starts at the bottom of the Kensington Palace hierarchy as a scullery maid and rises to prominence through a quick and dirty education in diabolical plotting and sexual predation.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster, Killing of a Sacred Deer) gives this toxic tale such a fantastical Alice in Wonderland spin, full of seemingly impossible events, that it’s surprising to learn the initial script was written by UK “historian and royalist” Deborah Davis (with Tony McNamara later co-writing).
Davis’ research turned up some pretty good dirt. It seems that Queen Anne and Lady Sarah really did refer to each other by their smirking childhood nicknames of “Mrs. Morley” and “Mrs. Freeman,” as represented in their shared mud-bath scene in the film. And when Sarah finally fell out of favor as Abigail ascended, she really did threaten to ruin Anne by publishing the many love letters sent to her by the besotted monarch: “Such things are in my power that if known…might lose a crown.”
But while still the Queen’s darling, Sarah was a political force to be reckoned with in the Whigs-vs.-Tories battle for control during England’s War of Spanish Succession fought against France. She held onto her influence for a remarkably long time given her express refusal to flatter the Queen, supposedly in order to honor their friendship.
“You look like a badger,” is just one of Sarah’s many whiplash remarks to the queen in the film, and the gorgeously commanding Rachel Weisz makes you believe in the holy terror the Duchess of Marlborough must have been. She delivers her lines with menacing cool even when appearing to offer aid to Abigail: “I have a thing for the weak,” and later, “I’ll make a killer of you yet.”
It seems that Queen Anne really was a royal mess who relied on such “favorites” to run the government. She was awkward, unkempt, badly educated, gout-ridden, and permanently indisposed after bearing seventeen children, none of whom survived long enough to leave the nursery — though it seems that she didn’t actually dote on seventeen pet rabbits named after her late children, as she does in the film. As Anne, Olivia Colman’s goofy expressions of bunny-love are both grotesque and touching, and provide a brief reprieve from scenes of outrageous shrieking, whining, slapping, heel-drumming tantrums.
The rabbits, scorned by Sarah as a “morbid” obsession of the queen’s, provide the opportunity for Abigail to curry favor with the needy monarch by feigning a tender interest in them. And the last shot of the film is an image of rabbits, rabbits everywhere. They represent Queen Anne’s multiplying traumas, her royal pain visited on the entire court — or rather, on the entire country.
More generally, director Lanthimos is following out his persistent symbolic use of animals in his films (manifest in many of his film titles) as the trapped and doomed creatures in a rotten human system.
Humans are equally trapped in the same rotten system, of course, but we made it, and we train ourselves to be rotten in order to survive it. The servants in The Favourite are just as vicious as the nobles, though with far more excuse, and the relentless practice of kissing up and kicking down pervades the whole court from scullery to royal bedchamber.
A refreshing attitude of worldly impiety pervades The Favourite, creating some wonderful exchanges. For example, Abigail’s response is jaded when, having arrived at the level of queen’s attendant, she finds her bedroom invaded by handsome young dolt Lord Masham (Joe Alwyn) in a loud foppish get-up topped by an enormous wig. Masham is being advised in his wooing by Lord Harley (played with acid insouciance by Nicholas Hoult) whose motto is, “A man must look pretty.”
Abigail: “Did you come to seduce me or rape me?”
Lord Masham: “I am a gentleman.”
Abigail: “So, rape, then.”
The Favourite is a series of gleefully unpredictable and occasionally appalling episodes charting Abigail’s rise to the highest level of spurious power that turns out to be imprisoning misery as the queen’s favorite. Each one is heralded by a title-card functioning like a chapter heading, with a line of not yet spoken dialogue such as, “This mud stinks,” and “What an outfit.”
The film’s greatest pleasures involve the feeling of being startled by something inventive which crops up in every aspect of the film. Shot on 35 millimeter by cinematographer Robbie Ryan (a Ken Loach favorite) at some monstrous stately home of England, the film combines two deliriously contradictory formal elements: 1) naturalistic lighting, including night scenes lit by candles alone that creates the effect of exotic amber creatures looming out of blackness, a la Stanley Kubrick’s famous experiment in Barry Lyndon, and 2) the promiscuous use of fish-eye lenses.
This unlikely combination is a bold way of signaling the grotesque quality of life in Queen Anne’s court. The distorting effects of the extremely wide lens use is so great that when the queen is wheeled down long hallways in her sedan chair, she seems to bulge out toward you, and characters look crazy and lost in the gaping expanse of palatial rooms.
We could use about twenty more films along these lines right away, part of a series that would constitute a kind of cinematic People’s History of Great Britain. They could rip into the brown-nosing conventions of “heritage films” that have done so much to soften the brains of audiences around the world, especially in former British colonies such as the United States.
They’d expose the disastrous eras of Brit misrule, the consistently vile abuses of power over centuries, and the ghastly domestic messes of a whole series of mad queens, syphilitic princes, dim-witted dukes, and loathsome landed gentry. As for the current royal family, they’d be saved for the slapstick finale, as the basis of a film called Idiocracy II: We’re Finally Onto You.
Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of the book Filmsuck, USA. She teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.