Queen Anne (1701-14) is remembered, if at all, for a school of doughty, dark furniture design which no one likes these days; for signing the paperwork that joined England and Scotland to form the United Kingdom, which fewer and fewer people like these days; and for enduring 17 pregnancies. Only five of these carried living children to term, and none of the infants survived past the age of two. She died depressed, obese and crippled with gout, and the House of Stuart ended its short and ignominious run on the throne when she did.
Queen Anne probably did not go in for red-hot lesbian romping with her favorite, Sarah Churchill, wife of the Duke of Marlborough and distant ancestor of Winston Churchill. Nor is it likely that Anne, when she tired of the red-hot lesbian romping with Sarah, went in for a further round of even redder and hotter lesbian romping with a younger favorite, Abigail Masham — even though Sarah, in a bid to displace Abigail from Anne’s affections, put it about that the two of them, to use the contemporary parlance, had been ‘playing the game of flats’.
The Favourite spells its title in the classy British way, but the historical accuracy ends there. This is almost certainly the first film to be made about the reign of Queen Anne, and very probably the last, too. It’s possible that the early drafts of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script devoted more attention to the fascinating interplay between Lord Harley, leader of the Whigs, and Lord Godolphin, leader of the Tories and ally of Sarah Churchill and the Duke of Marlborough, perhaps with a couple of telling scenes in which Anne, like her forebear Elizabeth I, kept the balance of power in balance by not committing too much to either side. But at some point, someone probably pointed out that people have more than enough politics in their lives already. What they want is sex and giggles, someone said, but with a weird and sinister edge. And duck racing.
Abigail (Emma Stone) is Sarah Churchill’s cousin. Her father was so mad that he burnt the family house with himself in it, and sold her in order to pay a gambling debt. She secures a job in the palace scullery from her cousin. Sarah (Rachel Weisz) runs the court for Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). She also runs Anne around the court in a wooden wheelchair — in Queen Anne style, of course — while doing her best to block the intrigues of Lord Harley, who wears more make-up than she does. The complexities of Whig-Tory rivalry are represented by indoor duck races, with each party grooming high-speed waddlers.
By a stroke of Sapphic synchrony, Rachel Weisz, who plays Sarah Churchill here, was reviewed in another lesbian love-triangle drama, Disobedience, in last week’s Spectator magazine. Sarah calls Anne ‘Mrs Morley’, and Anne calls her ‘Mrs Freeman’. She practices pistol shooting while dressed as a man, and carries it off so well that, if her career hits the skids, she can surely fall back on playing Peter Pan. She is visibly intelligent, and Olivia Colman is visibly desperate, and dependent on her friend. They are two excellent actresses, trapped in a film that mixes co-dependent tragedy with heartless spoof.
Yorgos Lanthimos has made gripping and weird films like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. The Favourite is gripping and weird too, though not always in a good way. There are some lovely Vermeer interiors, plenty of candlelight and tapestries, and some banging Baroque tunes. Lanthimos has paid close attention to Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, one of the very few films to be set in the reigns of Anne’s predecessors, William and Mary, as well as Barry Lyndon, one of several films to have been made under the reign of Stanley Kubrick.
Unfortunately, Lanthimos has paid equally close attention to romping comic duffers of the 18th-century genre like Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963), with Albert Finney as the eponymous romper, and even Faye Dunaway in that lost Neo-Georgian rompathon, Michael Winner’s remake of The Wicked Lady. When Abigail’s lover Colonel Masham (Joe Alwyn) breaks out the hip-hop moves at the ball, when lovers are ‘blindsided’, and when politicians speak of ‘career suicide’, there’s no disbelief left to suspend, just a residue of cold irony.
Anne keeps 17 rabbits in her bedroom, each named for a lost child. Maddened by sorrow and the pain of gout in her legs, she is losing her mind. Her makeup is getting stranger. ‘You look like a badger,’ Sarah tells her. As Abigail tries to climb the greasy pole, she is masturbated over, tipped into human ordure, and pushed into a ditch. Sarah is poisoned, dragged by a horse and scarred across her cheek, and imprisoned in a brothel. Anne stuffs herself with cream cakes, then vomits in close-up. If you would prefer that Michael Winner had directed The Draughtsman’s Contract, then you’ll love The Favourite.
Despite its demented unevenness, The Favourite has some great performances. Paul Swaine pulls off a gripping turn as Wanking Man. Callum Lewin brings rich interiority to the no less demanding role of Nude Pomegranate Tory, a nude Tory who dances around in slow motion while being pelted with pomegranates. My favorite, though, is Horatio the racing duck, who more than justifies his characterization as ‘The Fastest Duck in the City’.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.