The unusual film “The Favourite,” directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, was the opening night selection of the 2018 New York Film Festival and is now in commercial release. It’s a work that further demonstrates director Lanthimos’s broad imagination. With a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Lanthimos explores freely perceived bedroom escapades during the 18th century reign of Queen Anne between her and Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, and also between the queen and servant Abigail Hill.
Queen Anne ruled England, Scotland and Ireland from 1702 to 1707, and then, after Scotland and England were merged into Great Britain, she ruled from 1707 to 1714, when she died at the age of 49. Queen Anne suffered from gout and other illnesses, and she had a disastrous record of childbirths. There were some 17 pregnancies, including miscarriages and babies dying at birth or shortly afterward. Of five successful births, four children died before the age of two.
The queen is played by Olivia Colman and she is shown as clumsy, overweight and frequently wracked with pain, with a badly swollen leg, and having great difficulty walking. The duchess, given a stark performance by Rachel Weisz, cares for her, and we see them having sex.
Emma Stone sassily portrays Abigail. Young and beautiful, Abigail gains the affection of the queen, much to the consternation of the duchess, and nasty, scheming competition erupts. The situation is complicated by the queen’s frequent tantrums. One minute she can be friendly, the next angry and cruel.
Much of what happens is seen as funny from the perspective of the screenwriters and director. The film comes across as a satire on royalty, and certainly on hidden bedroom cravings, which play out as bizarre rather than erotic.
All this is wrapped in the trappings of palace luxury and lifestyle, and the colorful palace grounds and environs are strikingly photographed by cinematographer Robbie Ryan. While political aspects are introduced, the main concentration is on the three women and what occurs between them, sexually and otherwise.
“The Favourite” is such an oddball film that it is assured divided reactions, but those who find Lanthimos’s work appealing are likely to be pleased and amused by his foray into 18th century royalty and his imagining what happens behind the scenes. A Fox Searchlight release. Reviewed November 23, 2018.