“You’re jealous,” Olivia Colman’s sickly and tantrum-prone Queen Anne of Britain says with relish to her consort and lover, Sarah the Duchess of Marlborough, in The Favourite, a wild romp through the court of the lesser known 18th-century monarch.
The delicious satire from Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster, Killing of a Sacred Deer) pits Rachel Weisz’s Sarah against Emma Stone’s Abigail, a lady who’s fallen from grace and who’ll stop at nothing to regain her position. Thus, Sarah and Abigail engage in a devilish rivalry for Anne’s affection that delights the gout-ridden queen.
For all of its farcical, anachronistic sniping (the “c” word is used often and with great delectation), The Favourite is a prescient piece of work that elevates women to positions of power while depicting them as sexually voracious (and queer).
Meanwhile, the film's men, preening in their towering wigs, powdered faces, and chunky heels, are relegating to playing foppish outliers irrelevant to the politics of court and state. Beyond the heated sexual triangle at the center of the film, there exists one of the most abiding— albeit twisted — love stories between women on film this year. And Colman, a multi-BAFTA and Golden Globe winner over her decades-long career that includes roles in The Iron Lady, The Lobster, Broadchurch, and The Night Manager, is at the heart of The Favourite, around which all of the film’s games revolve.
“I sort of loved her,” Colman tells The Advocate about tackling the role of Anne, adding that it would have made her “jealous” if anyone else had been cast to play her.
“She’s the sort of person — you want to give her a cuddle. She’s so underconfident,” Colman says of the ineffectual Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs who fawned over the 17 bunnies in her bedroom while allowing Sarah to handle matters of state during the war of The Spanish Succession against France and Spain.
While the Elizabeths and Victorias of the monarchy have long been the dissected subjects for film, television, and novels, the details of Anne’s reign from 1702-1714 won’t necessarily ping with recognition for The Favourite’s audiences. The daughter of King James II, Anne married Prince George of Denmark. She was pregnant and either miscarried or lost her children in infancy 17 times, according to the film. And at least in this rendering of her story, her 17 beloved bunnies are stand-ins for that loss.
“She’ been stalked by tragedy,’ Weisz’s Sarah, wielding a pistol for shooting game, warns Stone’s Abigail in the film. And Colman, who won a best actress award at the Venice Film Festival for her role in the film, imbues Anne with equal parts pathos and humor.
Of course, much of Anne’s insecurity lies in the nature of her royal lineage and the impossibility of ever trusting much of anyone. And that’s where the central plot of Lanthimos’s film kicks into gear.
At the film’s opening, Anne bestows the gift of a palace on her beloved Sarah, the lady in history who was assigned to the queen’s bedchamber. In The Favourite, Sarah literally takes the monarch to bed at Anne’s behest.
“Fuck me,” is the royal decree Anne issues to Sarah following one of her queenly outbursts. Beyond the overt representation of female sexual desire between women that has never been depicted in a prestige period film with such gleeful abandon, the scene is the fulcrum that turns the narrative as Abigail discovers the royal secret and uses it to regain her position as a lady.
“[Anne] could never really know if anyone genuinely loves her,” Colman says. “She wants to be someone else’s ‘favorite.“
“[Sarah and Abigail are] just there for the power,” Colman adds.
Soon, Sarah and Abigail play at politics, sexual and otherwise — considering they both bed Anne regularly — to garner the queen's affections. But a narrative emerges that Anne and Sarah's borderline sadomasochistic relationship is a love story worth cheering for.
“I think by the end of the film, [Anne] realizes Sarah was the love of her life. And she’s sent her away,” Colman says. “She’s such a lost soul.”
Colman, who’s in line to play a completely different kind of monarch when she steps into Claire Foy’s royal shoes as Queen Elizabeth on Netflix's The Crown, has at least one thing in common with Anne — she shares her character’s glee that two women are fighting for her affection.
“I really pulled two incredibly hot women. I’m punching above my weight,” Colman says of having Weisz and Stone vie for her. “I just kept giggling about the fact that I pulled Rachel and Emily. That was not a hardship.”
While playing a love interest opposite Stone and her The Lobster costar Weisz was an honor, the importance of the film's representation of empowered, queer women is also not lost on Colman.
"There are many aspects of being an actress. It’s a very privileged thing if you’re getting work, it’s great," Colman says. "But if you give a voice to people who’ve been ignored. That’s just fucking marvelous. It makes you feel proud."
As far as The Favourite’s historical accuracy, it’s the film’s ultimate wink-and-a-nudge that no movie, no matter how fastidious in detail, can accurately recreate events that occurred more than 300 years ago. That’s where Lanthimos employs swish-pan camera movements, a fish-eye lens, and anachronistic bon mots to continually cue the audience into the idea that history on film is only ever approximated.
However, the script, originally developed by Deborah Davis 20 years ago (Tony McNamara signed on to cowrite more recently) was based in part on letters Sarah sent to Anne that would now be considered “love letters.” It’s also widely known that at some point Sarah supplanted, not only the queen’s husband, but the men at court, to become Anne’s chief political adviser.
How far Anne and Sarah took their relationship physically within the walls of Anne’s private chambers can’t be known, and the actuality of it is of no consequence to the story of female power The Favourite seeks to tell.
The Favourite was in some form of development for the past two decades, passed over by execs who couldn’t imagine three women in the lead, let alone a lesbian love triangle, producer Ceci Dempsey tells The Advocate.
"[Director Lanthimos] loved the story and wanted to tell it long before current issues had come to the fore," Colman says in reference to the Time's Up movement in Hollywood that came on the heels of #MeToo. "It’s shocking that we’re still going, It’s amazing that there are three women in the lead. It should always have been the case."