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Film review: The Favourite

04 January 2019

Don’t expect this film about Queen Anne to help you on the origins of the Church Commissioners, says Stephen Brown

© 20th-century fox

Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in The Favourite, on current release

Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in The Favourite, on current release

THE FAVOURITE (Cert. 15) may be set in the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14), but its sexual politics are of our own time. The director, Yorgos Lanthimos, freely admits: “Anyone who comes to this movie looking for a history lesson is in the wrong movie.” Nothing new there. Shakespeare took many liberties pursuing a deeper understanding of the human condition.

The Favourite could just as easily be entitled The Madness of Queen Anne; for we are presented with a mercurial sovereign (Olivia Colman), martyr to her gout, swayed hither and thither by two female advisers.

No mention is made of Queen Anne’s Bounty, which financially benefited poor Anglican clergy, ultimately paving the way to the establishment of the Church Commissioners. Anne, though married to a Lutheran, remained steadfastly High Church. It was widely thought that she supported the prevention of Dissenters’ and Roman Catholics’ holding public office. The Favourite has no references to Christianity, not even in connection with a brief mention of Jonathan Swift. When a marriage takes place, it seems to occur without benefit of clergy. And, in the parliamentary squabbles, one would be hard put to spot any Lords Spiritual.

What does that leave us with? Rachel Weisz plays Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, a lifelong friend on whom is bestowed the highest office a woman could hold: Mistress of the Robes. She certainly has the ear of the Queen and, according to this film, the rest of her body, too. A large picture of Adam and Eve unashamedly naked presides over the royal bedchamber as if to tell us that any fall from grace is the result of heeding bad advice from serpents. Is Sarah the viper in the nest?

For all her patriotism and fear that the war, if lost to France, would lead to invasion and, never spoken, a return to an aggressive Roman Catholicism? Or is Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), a penniless cousin of Sarah, the real snake in the grass? We witness the rise of this insidiously scheming kitchen maid to become the power behind the throne. The male politicians, in contrast, are mere ciphers, manipulated or dismissed on the whims of their Queen.

Historians may well grind their teeth at what is on show, but it is helpful to put this new Lanthimos movie into perspective. The Greek director specialises in cultural isolation. In Dogtooth (2009) and The Lobster (2015), groups are regulated in strange and cruel ways. The Killing of the Sacred Deer (2017) comes nearest to making the implicit explicit: how religious belief and practices inform, to the point of distortion, our social arrangements.

Another feature of this film, as with the work of Bertolt Brecht, is that we are never allowed to forget that we are watching a stylised performance. The frequent use of a fisheye lens, with its warped view of reality, reminds us that the world never was, doesn’t need to be, quite like this.

Things are seldom what they seem in The Favourite. The employment of much sacred music in scenes that are anything but, together with the Adam and Eve picture, serves to show how far we have fallen from that prelapsarian state.

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