The Favouriteis ‘loosely based’ on history. So what of the film is true I wonder? Was Queen Anne really a lesbian? Did the rivalry between Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough and her cousin Abigail really exist? Before writing this, I realised I knew nothing of Queen Anne, save that she was the daughter of James II, and rather plain. A quick read of the history books is required for the film has piqued my curiosity.
We pick up the story at the height of the wars of the Spanish Succession fought under the able command of John, Lord Marlborough, husband to Sarah (a smouldering and scheming Rachel Weisz), Queen Anne’s favourite and mistress of the privy purse, and of the Queen herself it appears. Childhood friends, they indulge in pet-names in an effort to appear to each other as equals, which of course they weren’t. Mrs Morley is the Queen and Sarah Mrs Freeman, her closest confident, friend and, increasingly, her advisor on all matters relating to court and politics going so far as to persuade the Queen to appoint her ally as Prime Minister and tax her enemies, the Tories, to fund her husband’s war effort.
Into this intrigue arrives Abigail, a lady fallen on hard times. Soon she inveigles her way into Sarah’s, and then the Queen’s, favour by massaging her legs inflamed by gout. Their rivalry to the Queen’s affections and as ladies of the bedchamber is allegorised by their shooting competitions using live birds on the lawn.
Emma Stone’s portrayal of the scheming Abigail is beguiling – at first we feel sorry for her, then horrified as she blatantly tells a the gullible and depressed queen that she is ‘ so beautiful, if I were a man I would ravish you’. Soon she has Anne round her little finger and Sarah has to fight for her place at court.
Olivia Coleman’s portrayal of the Queen is simply magnificent. She put on two and a half stone for the role, but her success is not due to appearances only, yet the physicality of her acting is dominating, in particular the vulnerability caused by her gout, her weight, and her stroke. She radiates the pain and loneliness of a woman who has lost 17 babies through miscarriage, still birth and in infancy. In one harrowing scene, she snatches a courtier’s baby having just put a screeching halt to a children’s quartet playing on the lawn. As Abigail finds out the key to her heart is through her 17 ‘babies’ – the rabbits she keeps in her room in honour of her dead.
Yet the portrayal is fictionalised to a large extent – the director makes the Queen out to be querulous, irrational, prone to mood swings and incapable of addressing Parliament due to nerves – and bad eye-sight (this is true, she was very short sighted). In fact her reign was marked not only by the successes on the battlefield, but also by the formation of Great Britain, the unification of England and Scotland. It also saw the rise of the two-party system, and the blossoming of intellects such as Pope, Swift, Addison and Newton; and Christopher Wren was completing St Paul’s. It laid the foundations of the golden age of the 18thcentury.
It is true, however, that Queen Ann was besotted by the women in her life: Sarah Churchill kept the love letters from ‘Mrs Morley’ and used them to try and discredit the monarch after she fell from favour and, later, in her autobiography to emphasise how important a role she had played in the Court of Queen Anne. Abigail, her cousin, also existed though her recorded plainness would not suit Hollywood!
The Favouriteis a voyage of discovery. It reveals a whole era of history about which I knew nothing, but more than that it celebrates a trio of women actors at the height of their powers who captivate and engage the audience with every twist and turn in the flawless script. A word of tribute to director Yorgos Lanthimos who intertwines humour – duck and lobster racing, a dancing interlude straight from Strictly – with drama and intrigue. A most satisfying night out.