There’s a grand guignol atmosphere in “The Favourite,” with 18th century men coiffed in long sheep-like wigs, made up to look like drag queens and Queen Anne herself looking more like a madwoman than a regal character. Though the story of the queen and Sarah and Abigail, the two women who service her in every sense of the word, is loosely based on historical fact, the language is full of contemporary curse words which seem anachronistic. Surprisingly, they turn out to have been in use during that century - especially the two four letter words with a “u” as the only vowel; this is significant because it lends credibility to some of the sexual behavior you might have thought was not in vogue at that time. Certainly there is no historical record to support the movie’s contentions.
Everything about The Favourite is over the top - the incredible paneled palace, the background music which occasionally rises to the foreground, the oversized ambitions of Sarah and Abigail, well-played by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone and the complicated, convoluted character of Anne herself in a tour-de-force performance by Olivia Colman. She is sickly and dependent yet willful and demanding; at times a fool and then surprisingly capable of rising to the exigencies of her rank. She remains a deeply unhappy woman who mourns her miscarriages and stillbirths and the early death of her child. She is supremely eccentric and prone to childish tantrums such as summarily dismissing her various ministers so she can return to her bed. Though she is the fulcrum around whom the plot revolves, the main subjects of interest are the two women who are distant cousins, each vying for Anne’s attention and rewards.
Lady Sarah Churchill is a commanding presence who, as the queen’s main lady in waiting, has taken over most of the decision making for the country. She is clever, informed and the wife of the Duke of Marlborough who was leading the British troops in a war against the French. Historically, Sarah is credited with having been the most powerful woman in France in her day. After noticing that Abigail has been demoted to being a scullery maid, Sarah rescues her, bringing her upstairs where the work is more pleasant and where she subtly manages to insinuate herself into the queen’s affections and bedchamber.
How this happens is told in graphic scenes involving nudity, sex, politics, violence, treachery, romance, disillusionment and some surprises. At a certain point, the movie begins to feel like a pile-on that actually makes you lose interest because there’s just too much to digest. The soundtrack, effective at first in foretelling an ominous development, eventually turns into a headache-producing disturbance. But the movie will make you run to the internet to learn more about this unusual triangle of women - no mean accomplishment for director Yorgos Lanthimos.
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