The Favourite: Sensationalism at the Expense of History

The beautiful cinematography and wonderful acting in this over-the-top period piece barely makes up for its historical inaccuracy and a grueling 2-hour run time.

Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite is artistically filmed, the acting is wonderful, and cinematography top notch. If you’re looking for a realistic account of Queen Anne’s 18th Century British court, however, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The Favourite chooses to enshrine gossip and rumor as historic fact, while delivering a film that is as tedious as it is tantalizing.

As the film opens, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is deciding whether to continue a war with France after an English victory, or sue for peace. Her natural inclination, and that of opposition leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), is for peace, but her influential friend and Keeper of the Privy Purse Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), wife of Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), wants to prosecute the war to the bitter end. During negotiations, a dirty but charming Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives seeking employment in Lady Sarah’s household.

Things get complicated when Abigail discovers Queen Anne and Lady Sarah’s dirty little secret, and uses it to her advantage to get closer to the Queen. Abigail and Lady Sarah engage in a private war for the Queen’s affection, while Robert Harley and Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) conspire to use Abigail to get closer to the Queen, wh0 only has time for one friend, I guess. Who will become the Queen’s favourite?

Using extreme wide-angles (shot with Panavision lenses) to achieve a sense of expanse even in a small room, the filmmakers capture a delightfully Baroque portrayal of an outlandish and amoral British aristocracy. The acting is top-notch, with Emma Stone giving one of the best performances of her career. Olivia Colman should receive an Oscar nod for her portrayal of Queen Anne. The film, however, could’ve been improved by cutting at least 20 minutes of silence, screeching violins, and arthouse chapter titles.

Historically, Queen Anne ruled England, Scotland, and Ireland (and then Great Britain) from 1702 to 1714. The film takes place during the War of the Spanish Succession. John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, the husband of Queen Anne’s close friend, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, was commander of Allied forces in that conflict. Marlborough was caught between the two political parties in Britain: the Tories and Whigs. Queen Anne favored the Tories, who wanted peace, but the Whigs had gained considerable power alongside Sarah Churchill, who had the Queen’s ear and advocated on their behalf.

Sarah was notoriously headstrong and spoke her mind freely and openly, which began to get on the Queen’s nerves. In 1711, Queen Anne dismissed the Duke of Marlborough from service over charges of embezzlement. John and Sarah Churchill went into exile a year later. Sarah’s break with the Queen was exacerbated by her rivalry with her younger cousin, Abigail (Hill) Masham. Sarah tried to have Abigail removed from the Queen’s household, and when she could not, accused Abigail and the religiously conservative Queen of having a sexual relationship (among a litany of other insults).

The Favourite indulges in sensationalism at the expense of history. It depicts Sarah as a jealous lover carrying on an illicit sexual affair with the Queen and omits Queen Anne’s great religious devotion and her marriage to Prince George of Denmark, though he died in 1708. The only evidence of a love affair comes from romantic-sounding (but entirely Platonic) letters and rumors spread by political rivals. Director Yorgos Lanthimos admitted he didn’t care whether a real love triangle took place between Queen Anne, Sarah Churchill, and Abigail Masham. “We never really discussed it [the historical accuracy],” he said.

As a story of two rivals competing for the affections of a monarch, The Favourite is similar to The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), directed by Justin Chadwick and starring Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, and Eric Bana. It is about the rivalry between sisters Anne and Mary Boleyn for the affection of King Henry VIII. Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham were also related (though distantly). It wasn’t uncommon at the time for ambitious families to seek employment at a royal court, and becoming a royal mistress could be very advantageous.

Like The Favourite, The Other Boleyn Girl has little regard for historic accuracy, but where The Favourite imagined sexual trysts where there probably were none, The Other Boleyn Girl turns the Boleyn sisters into innocent virgins. In that film, Anne is depicted as a pure and devoted wife when she met King Henry VIII. In reality, she had already been kicked out of the French Court for sleeping around (King Francis called her “my English mare”). You know it’s bad when even the French think your sex life is scandalous.

The Favourite currently holds a 94% positive rating from critics and 58% audience favorability on RottenTomatoes. Despite winning a litany of praise and awards, it barely made back its $15 million budget at the box office. Why the discrepancy? This is exactly the type of film critics love, and it will appeal to art house aficionados. There’s nothing wrong with that. But while general audiences might snicker at the absurd spectacle, they will feel the clock ticking on every single minute of this two-hour film.

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