Actress Olivia Colman seems to have become a royal.
From starring in the The Crown to playing the Queen Mother in Hyde Park on the Hudson to her current portrayal of Queen Anne in The Favourite, she really does get around these royal circles.
Queen Anne is the object of this film which also stars Rachel Weisz, as the Countess of Marlborough Lady Sarah and the Queen’s right hand, who vies with her own cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) for the role of ‘favourite’.
This film is based on truth. There is documented evidence of the relationship between Anne, Sarah, and Abigail, and where some of the action seems far-fetched, it is actually not.
Lady Sarah’s power in court is without competition until Abigail arrives. Abigail has been through tough times, sold by her father to pay a gambling debt to a fat German at age 15. She has worked as a maid, and been forced into a succession of ugly situations until she finds her cousin Lady Sarah in the Royal Court. Abigail is a woman on the make to secure a position for herself at court. She watches her cousin, learning the ways of the court and the art of manipulation, and finds the way to guarantee her own success.
These three actresses are equally strong and their roles are equally rich. It’s not often that all players in a triangle are afforded equality (and it’s refreshing that they are women – not dependent on men for the action, speeches or conversation.) Colman is frumpy, unattractive, and plays Anne a little like we’re accustomed to seeing Queen Victoria portrayed as an older woman.
Queen Anne will sit on the throne for only a short time – between 1702 and 1714. She succeeds her sister Mary who ruled with her husband, William of Orange. Mary died of smallpox in 1694 and William continued to reign, but Anne becomes the heir apparent as Mary and William have no children.
Meanwhile, Anne marries Prince George of Denmark and falls pregnant 17 times, with only one surviving child – a son who dies aged 11.
By the time she accedes the throne, Anne is in ill-health and obese. Her gout renders her lame for much of her life, and she is often in a wheelchair or sedan. Anne is popular as Queen and is a patron of the arts, including sponsoring Handel.
Weisz is perfect as Lady Sarah, with power over the Queen, manipulating her to perfection. Her classic beauty and regal looks allow her to use her wiles to give her what she desires. She keeps the Queen on a short leash through favours and then threats. When she first meets Abigail she has the power and uses it to put the young would-be-usurper in her place. This does not deter young Abigail, but spurs her to ensure a more permanent role in court. Abigail is approached by the head of the opposition, Robert Hawley (Nicholas Hoult) who bullies her into spying on the Queen and Lady Sarah for him. At first she decides her allegiance is to Lady Sarah, but when she sees a way of securing her own position she makes a deal with Hawley.
As Abigail, Stone has the greatest development of character, from being agreeable and easy she adopts the ways of the court to use and protect her place. While battling Lady Sarah, Stone and Weisz have two very powerful roles to act out in front of the Queen in their quest to be chosen as favourite. Colman owns each scene in which she appears – the Queen has Trump-like tantrums, and even looks like an overgrown toddler at times.
The film is beautifully shot with many fish-eye lenses to make the most of the sumptuous surroundings. Hatfield House and Hampton Court Palace are both featured. But despite the beauty of the palaces, the film enjoys showing the realistic side of the times – and I was glad that we could not smell the very real surroundings at times. The bawdiness of the times and the people is starkly contrasted with the opulence of the palaces and the dress of those within. There is the earthiness of sex, bodily functions, and a hutch of rabbits. The elaborate wigs and over-the-top stockings, dresses, and buckled shoes only drape the dirtiness of those they cover. The England of Queen Anne is overbearing in many ways and the excesses including the lesbian dalliances of the Queen illustrate that not much has changed in royal circles through the ages – those in power do whatever they like with whomever they like, whenever they like.
This is a film for those who like a good story, and good history told with the realism of someone as insightful as director Yorgos Lanthimos who chose an interesting period and characters to show its very human depth.
And like every good film based on fact, it inspired investigation into the history. This is a very important period for England, the monarchy, and government. We see how it all worked in Queen Anne’s time and what this inspired for the monarchies that followed.
After Anne’s rule, the next monarch was 57th in line to the throne (the first 56 were Catholics), which just goes to show that fact is often stranger than fiction.