The Queen, The King’s Speech, Elizabeth. For years, films on British royals have provided material for stories on people in power whose lives have been largely hidden from the public. The British monarchy is probably at the peak of its popularity these days and the fascination surrounding every marriage, birth, or even divorce surrounding them has only added to their mystique. Still, when writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara wrote a screenplay centered around the life of a more considerably obscure British monarch, there was no guarantee that it would result in a hit. But the risk was taken and now, we have The Favourite.
It is 1708 and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is ruler of Britain. Sickly and largely confined to a chair, Anne has given her confidante and friend Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), the authority to effectively govern in her place. Anne is lonely after 17 miscarriages and the loss of her husband, and Sarah is always brutally honest with her to the point of being hurtful.
When Sarah’s destitute cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) seeks employment with her and the Queen, Abigail is ordered to be a lowly scullery maid. Abigail’s father had gambled away their family’s earnings and even his daughter was given off as payment for his debts. Seeing Queen Anne’s many aches and pains, Abigail uses herbs to alleviate pain in her legs, something that enrages Sarah. Anne, however, appreciates the gesture and makes Abigail her lady of the bedchamber.
With Sarah managing the war on France on Anne’s behalf, parliament member Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) is fighting Sarah’s efforts to double the taxes to finance the war effort. Harley tries to use Abigail as a spy for his benefit, but she soon enters into a sexual relationship with the Queen just as Sarah previously did. Abigail’s influence soon grows, something that Sarah finds very threatening. Both cousins soon find themselves each trying to curry favor with Anne, and there are seemingly no depths to how low they can go to eliminate the other.
Twenty years after director Shekhar Kapur introduced the world to Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I in Elizabeth, Yorgos Lanthinos takes on the challenge of bringing the story of an even more obscure monarch to the big screen. Colman is largely known for her work on television through Broadchurch and Doctor Who, and has succeeded Claire Foy in portraying Queen Elizabeth II in the coming third season of The Crown. Her Anne is a lonely, insecure, and broken woman who has ascended to the British throne but seemingly doesn’t know how to rule. She is also capricious and prone to wild mood swings as she keeps looking for validation not just from Sarah and Abigail, but even doormen and other people who attend her. It’s no surprise that Colman won Best Actress – Motion Picture Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes, then proceeded to score the upset for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role at the 91st Academy Awards.
Both Stone and Weisz capture the scheming, dueling, manipulative nature of two women trying to earn the favor of the most powerful woman in the world. Both know that Anne is their meal ticket and realize that her rival is aiming high. Stone’s Abigail in particular, embodies the old axiom that “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” as Anne’s trust in her increases. Weisz’s Sarah can be a cold politician who doesn’t hide her disdain for Anne’s make-up and idiosyncracies yet also seems to honestly care for her. The acting nominations for both as Best Supporting Actress at the British Academy Film Awards and Oscars are well-deserved, as are the other awards that the film has been nominated for at several award-giving bodies.
Queen Anne is a monarch that is largely forgotten worldwide, perhaps due to her physical weakness, the shortness of her 12-year reign, or Sarah Churchill ruling in her name, thus this story of two of her court favorites battling for her endorsement is eye-opening. Although there are several comedic moments, it is still largely a historical drama, and the final fate of the Queen is also thought-provoking and tragic.
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