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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
The good news about The Favourite, is that you are likely to emerge from it in good humour—bemused, or amused, or a mixture of the two. Nobody in The Favouritecould be described as a noble specimen of humanity, and yet there rises an unmistakable whiff of fun.
The director, Yorgos Lanthimos, has put female characters in the front row of the action while the men in the story exist only to be fooled with, fended off, or duped. The setting is the English court at the start of the eighteenth century, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is on the throne, loyally assisted—and exceeded in glamour, wit, and cunning—by Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz).
The drama we’re watching, though steeped in the period, is not quite of the period. Hence the dialogue blends the foulest invective with musty Edwardian slang and modern locutions. All historical reconstruction is a game, and to pretend otherwise is merest folly. The Queen is not a picture of elegance. Legs akimbo, she sits and fusses over her seventeen pet rabbits. The character could easily slump into the grotesque or the simply pitiful, but Olivia Colman finds a curious decorum in Anne. Though her manners remain terrible she possesses the sad courage of a survivor. England expects the Queen to produce heirs, and she has had seventeen pregnancies, but none of her children survived. The rabbits, we realize, are not an eccentricity. They are a memorial.
Enter Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a poor relation of Sarah’s, who seeks to be of service at court. Abigail begins by scrubbing floors. She makes herself useful, however, preparing a poultice to soothe Anne’s pains, and swiftly rises through the ranks, from chambermaid to confidante, before supplanting Sarah, her kinswoman, in the sovereign’s bed. You would never guess that, when the real life Abigail arrived, the Queen was still married to Prince George of Denmark, whom she adored. We hear no mention of him. For the mordant purposes of “The Favourite,” love does not exist.