The Favourite is a period romp set during the reign of Queen Anne, but it’s not your average period romp. The women are in charge. There is hot lesbian sex. It is savagely funny and often preposterous, with duck racing and ludicrous, vertiginous wigs and an astonishingly weird dance scene. Yet it is also involving and deeply moving with performances that are monumentally stellar. It stars Olivia Colman and Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz and while they are all flat-out fabulous, Olivia Colman, good grief. She deserves thousands of Oscars and thousands of Baftas, and if she can’t fit another through her door she’ll just have to bin some.
The film is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), with a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, and Colman plays Queen Anne, who ruled between 1702 and 1714, but seems to have always been overlooked. (In fact, she’s been so overlooked that I can’t even recall Lucy Worsley ever dressing up as her.) Yet this is based on fact, albeit embellished fact, and it’s incredibly fascinating. The Anne we meet is not in great shape. She is fat, reclusive, mercurially tempered, crippled by gout and those who care for her also have their own agendas. She’s like a late-stage Elvis, but with rabbits. She keeps 17 in her bedchamber, where most of the action takes place. Her closest confidante is Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz), who runs the country on the Queen’s behalf. The power shifts constantly in their relationship but Sarah knows how to please her, including in bed. However, trouble brews when Sarah’s cousin, Abigail Hill (Stone), arrives at the palace seeking employment, having fallen on hard times. (Her father lost her in a card game to a German with a small penis. See how this isn’t like other period romps?) She starts as a lowly maid scrubbing floors but is smart and ambitious and seeks to displace Sarah in the Queen’s regard, as well as in the four-poster.
So this is a tale of obsession and jealousy as the two women vie to become ‘The Favourite’. And, because there is little exposition, it feels fresh as a daisy, as if it is happening right now, and we’re being plunged headlong into it. It could have been plain absurd, and sometimes it does teeter on the brink of plain absurd. The wigs are truly preposterous. That dance is truly preposterous. But the script is razor-sharp and quick-witted, plus the three women at its heart not only drive the narrative powerfully, and stand up for themselves, but also draw you into matters of serious and complicated feeling. (There are some men in the mix, but they’re never what this is about.)
Poor galumphing Anne could have been portrayed as a figure of ridicule but Colman finds her tragic core (the rabbits will have tremendous significance) and deftly and effortlessly rolls a lot of personality into one character. This Queen is imperious and tantrumy but also generous and humorous and is shown to play a cunning hand herself. I don’t say this lightly, but whatever it is that Judi Dench does, Colman can do it too. Weisz and Stone, meanwhile, are knockout as her foils as well as fully tragicomic in their own right. I don’t just recommend you see this film. I command it.