The Favourite (film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Yorgos Lanthimos|
|Edited by||Yorgos Mavropsaridis|
|Distributed by||Fox Searchlight Pictures|
|Box office||$3.5 million|
The Favourite is a 2018 historical period comedy-drama film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, from a screenplay written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. A co-production of Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States, the story focuses on the behind-the-scenes politics between two cousins jockeying to be court favourites during the reign of Queen Anne in the early 18th century. It stars Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, James Smith, and Mark Gatiss. Filming took place at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire and Hampton Court Palace, Richmond upon Thames, between March and May 2017.
The Favourite had its world premiere at the 75th Venice International Film Festival on 30 August 2018, where it won two awards: the Grand Jury Prize and the Volpi Cup for Best Actress (for Colman). It was then theatrically released in the United States on 23 November 2018, by Fox Searchlight Pictures. The film was praised for its direction, screenplay, cinematography, music, costume design, production values, and the performances of the three leading ladies. The American Film Institute selected it as one of the top 10 films of the 2018, and among other accolades, it received five Golden Globes nominations, including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.
In 1708, Britain is at war with the French, and Queen Anne sits on the throne. In frail health due to gout, Anne does not express much interest in governing the kingdom, instead preferring eccentric activities such as racing lobsters and playing with her rabbits, which represent the seventeen children she has lost over the years. Her confidant, adviser, and secret lover Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, effectively rules the country by the confidences she instructs to the Queen. Sarah's efforts to control Anne are undermined by Robert Harley, a member of Parliament and influential landowner responsible for bringing in state taxes for the war.
Meanwhile, Abigail Hill, Sarah's impoverished younger cousin, arrives at Court in search of employment. Abigail's history is tainted by her father, who has gambled away his good name and previously handed over his daughter to settle his debts to a German. Abigail is at first forced to do menial work as a scullery maid in the palace, but after seeing the Queen's condition, she figures out an opportunity to ingratiate herself into the good graces of Sarah and, eventually, Queen Anne herself. She uses herbs to aid the Queen's inflamed legs, and though she is initially punished by Sarah for her presumption, the remedy eases the Queen's suffering. In gratitude, Sarah makes Abigail her lady-in-waiting.
Harley soon approaches Abigail, hoping to use her as a spy in order to find out what Sarah's schemes are and figure out a way to circumvent her authority. Abigail initially rebuffs him, but soon she becomes aware of the secret relationship between Anne and Sarah. Realizing that there is an opportunity to advance herself further, Abigail begins planning her own ascent to win the Queen's favor.
While Sarah is focused on the war effort, Abigail takes advantage of her preoccupation to kindle a friendship with Anne, which soon becomes a sexual relationship. Sarah soon becomes wise to Abigail's machinations and attempts to have her sent away. Abigail, however, spikes her tea, which causes Sarah to collapse while on horseback. She falls off the horse and is dragged into the forest, vanishing for several days. Queen Anne, thinking that Sarah has temporarily abandoned her in order to make her jealous, embraces Abigail wholeheartedly into her favor. Her first reward is to marry Samuel Masham, a baron in Anne's court, thus reinstating Abigail's noble standing.
A battered and scarred Sarah awakens in a bordello. When she returns to court, she issues an ultimatum to Anne: send Abigail away, or she will leak to the press the letters between Sarah and Anne that detail their sexual relationship. This threat destroys the relationship between Anne and Sarah. Even though Sarah voluntarily burns the letters in penance, she is ultimately stripped of her offices and sent away from court. When Abigail, now promoted to Keeper of the Privy Purse, presents what she claims to be evidence that Sarah had been embezzling money, Sarah and her husband are exiled from Britain.
Abigail, having secured her goal of a place in court and the aristocracy as well as finally ridding herself of Sarah, lounges in the Queen's bedchamber and expresses her power by abusing one of Anne's pet rabbits. Anne, finally seeing Abigail's true nature, commands her to massage her legs as both a personal humiliation and a reminder of the Queen's true authority.
- Olivia Colman as Anne, Queen of Great Britain
- Emma Stone as Abigail Hill
- Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough
- Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer
- Joe Alwyn as Samuel Masham, 1st Baron Masham
- Mark Gatiss as John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough
- James Smith as Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphin
- Jenny Rainsford as Mae
Writing and development
Deborah Davis had written the script for The Favourite as early as 1998, when it was then titled The Balance of Power. Davis admitted to having little knowledge of the Queen and her relationships with Sarah and Abigail:
"As a historian who studied history at university and someone who had a lifelong history, I knew nothing about Queen Anne and I knew nothing about this relationship. So, I set myself the task of finding out about Sarah and Queen Anne and very quickly stumbled on the story about women in power and a female triangle."
Davis subsequently compiled and studied the letters written by Queen Anne, Sarah, and Abigail:
"I did a lot of research and as it turns out, there is a wealth of original sources. You have historical accounts of the period. One of the best sources is Winston Churchill who wrote the story about his ancestor who was the Duke of Marlborough and he covers the female triangle and the relationship between Anne, Sarah and Abigail in his four-part biography. There are enormous amounts of sources out there. Another one was, of course, Sarah’s memoir where she wrote about how she was replaced in the Queen’s favor by Abigail and how Abigail had become the absolute favorite."
Discussing the process of getting the film produced, Davis stated:
"I wrote the first draft in 1998 and I had no experience in scriptwriting. I took myself to night school to learn. I took that first draft to Ceci Dempsey and she was very interested in it [...] She had never ever wavered in her support and passion for this project."
Producer Ceci Dempsey possessed an early draft of the script and found herself "haunted" by "the passion, the survival instincts of these women, the manipulations and what they did to survive." However, Dempsey had difficulty securing financing at the time, due to the lesbian content, as well as the lack of male representation, which financers felt would be challenging to market.
Almost a decade later, producer Ed Guiney got hold of the script, and was similarly attracted to the complicated plot and relationships of the three women. “We didn't want to make just another British costume drama," he stated, "[we wanted] a story that felt contemporary and relevant and vibrant — not something out of a museum.”
During this time, Guiney became acquainted with Yorgos Lanthimos, whose film Dogtooth (2009) received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and approached him with the prospect of directing the film. Lanthimos immediately became intrigued with “[t]hese three women possessed power that affected the lives of millions,” and at the same time found the story to be “intimate” as well. Lanthimos then began working closely with screenwriter Tony McNamara on “freshening up” the script. By 2013, the producers were receiving financing offers from several companies, including Film4 Productions and Waypoint Entertainment.
In September 2015, it was announced that Yorgos Lanthimos would direct the film, from a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, which was described as "a bawdy, acerbic tale of royal intrigue, passion, envy, and betrayal." Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Lee Magiday, and Andrew Lowe served as producers under their Scarlet Films and Element Pictures banners, respectively.
This is the first film in which neither Lanthimos nor his frequent collaborator Efthymis Filippou serve as screenwriters, but Lanthimos was nonetheless attracted to Davis' and McNamara's script, and "became acquainted with the three female characters who happened to be real people. I felt that it was an interesting story in its own right, but you also have the opportunity to create three complex female characters which is something you rarely see." Of her working relationship with Lanthimos, Dempsey said:
“He has a very particular, contained view. And he reserves it and conserves it, deliberately. He’s very intuitive on every level. Casting, yes. Even hiring the department, it’s all the same process [...] You’re not going to talk him into anything ever, ever, ever, ever. Once you accept that, you have to intuit or inhale what he wants, but he’s got a very particular contained view and you just need to go with it."
In regards to the film's plot, specifically the lesbian-centric love triangle, Lanthimos stated that
"My instinct from the beginning was that I didn't want this to become an issue in the film, for us, like we're trying to make a point out of it [...] I didn't even want the characters in the film to be making an issue of it. I just wanted to deal with these three women as human beings. It didn't matter that there were relationships of the same gender. I stopped thinking about that very early on in the process."
Lanthimos also elaborated on the "positive" effect the Me Too movement had on the film:
"Because of the prevalent male gaze in cinema, women are portrayed as housewives, girlfriends… Our small contribution is we're just trying to show them as complex and wonderful and horrific as they are, like other human beings."
In September 2015, it was announced that Emma Stone, Olivia Colman and Kate Winslet had been cast in the film, portraying Abigail Masham, Queen Anne, and Sarah Churchill, respectively. By October 2015, Rachel Weisz joined the cast of the film, replacing Winslet. This comes as the second collaboration between Lanthimos, Colman, and Weisz, all of whom previously worked together on Lanthimos' The Lobster (2015). In February 2017, Nicholas Hoult joined the cast of the film, followed by Joe Alwyn, in March 2017. On 8 August 2018, Mark Gatiss, James Smith, and Jenny Rainsford were announced as additional members of the cast.
The casting for the film was crucial for Lanthimos, who describes his process as "instinctive", stating: "It's one of those things when you feel you're right and you need to insist no matter what." Colman was his first and only choice for Queen Anne, and she readily accepted, despite having portrayed Queen Elizabeth in Hyde Park on Hudson (2012) and Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown. After Winslet left the project, Lanthimos approached Cate Blanchett for the role of Sarah, who turned down the offer due to “timing issues”, after which he approached Weisz, who accepted the role. For Abigail, Lanthimos agreed to allow Stone, whom he was only familiar with for her role in the comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), to audition, only after she worked with a dialect coach for at least one month.
Colman readily accepted the role of Queen Anne, and stated that the difference between Anne and the previous queens she played was that “the other queens didn't get to fall in love with two hot women.” She also found that playing the Queen was "a joy because she sort of feels everything," and when asked if the character was nothing more than a petulant child, she stated that, "She's just a woman who is underconfident and doesn't know if anyone genuinely loves her. She has too much power, too much time on her hands." Weisz described the film as a comedy, comparing it to a "funnier, sex driven" All About Eve (1950), and was primarily attracted to the project due to the prominent female leads, and considered her role to be “the juiciest” of her career. Stone was initially hesitant to accept the role, at first thinking Abigail was “a sweet kind of girl, the victim, a servant to these people,” but changed her mind after reading the script, and ended up "begging" Lanthimos for the role. Stone’s greatest concern was mastering her accent: "It's 1705, which was about 300 years before any period I had ever done. It was pretty daunting on a few levels — having to be British and not stick out like a sore thumb [...]"
–Critic Joshua Rothkopf's analysis of the gender dynamics in the film
Despite having less dynamic roles, Hoult and Alwyn were nonetheless intrigued to be a part of a film dominated by three complex leading female characters. "It’s obviously very timely to have three female leads, and it’s wonderful to see because it’s so rare," said Hoult, "The dynamic between the characters they play is so wonderful because it’s so intricate and difficult to understand exactly who’s wanting what from this love-power struggle, and it’s just wonderful to watch and see." Alwyn shared similar views: "It’s unusual, I suppose, to have a film led by three women, and these three women are so unbelievably talented and generous as performers and also as people, and to spend time with them and be on set with them and everyone else was just a lot of fun. I was just happy to be a part of it at all. It’s rare to get a film like this to come along that is so different from what we’re used to seeing, especially with a director like this, so to be any part in it was brilliant."
Prior to filming, Lanthimos engaged the principal actors in an approximately three week rehearsal process, which included the actresses walking backwards quickly to see if they would collide with one another, and according to Weisz, another exercise which involved the actors linking their arms together to create “a human pretzel.” According to Stone, Lanthimos wanted to see “how much we could sense each other without seeing each other.” Lanthimos himself stated that the rehearsals “enabled [the actors] to not take themselves too seriously, learn the text in a physical way by doing completely irrelevant things to what the scene is about, just be comfortable about making a fool of themselves.” 
Filming was expected to begin in the spring of 2016, but was pushed back a year, during which time Lanthimos directed The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). Principal photography began in March 2017 at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire and concluded in May 2017. Lanthimos stated that a major reason for filming at the Hatfield House was because "From the beginning, I had this image of these lonely characters in huge spaces."
Production designer Fiona Crombie drew inspiration from the chequered black-and-white marble floor in the Great Hall for the film's colour palette, noting that "a character will walk into a room and you get this incredible wide-shot – we're talking seeing from the floors to the ceilings to the corners. You see everything." Several alterations were made to various rooms in the house, particularly for the Queen's room, which included removing paintings, furniture, and other decorations, in order to "put our own language into it." As with most of Lanthimos' works, the film implements natural lighting as opposed to artificial lighting, which proved to be somewhat challenging for the night time scenes, which were candle-lit: "as you imagine, there are very strict protocols about managing candles [...] we had to use an enormous number of wax catchers. But the people who manage Hatfield were very supportive and we negotiated and negotiated, and we would be able to do a vast majority of what we wanted to do."
Costume designer Sandy Powell specifically sought out Lanthimos, having been a fan of his previous work, including Dogtooth and Alps (2011). In regards to Abigail, Powell wanted the character’s rise to power to be reflected in her costumes: “I wanted to give her that vulgarity of the nouveau riche, and her dresses get a little bolder and showier. There’s more pattern involved and there are black-and-white stripes [...] I wanted her to stand out from everybody else as trying too hard.” Although Queen Anne spends most of her time in the film in a nightgown, due to her ill nature, Powell wanted the Queen to have an iconic look, and constructed a robe made of ermine, explaining that, “This is the queen at her most queenly, in her ceremonial outfit [...] I looked at images and real things like it, and normally [this type of garment] would be solid gold, embroidered, and bejeweled, so I thought what else can I do just to give it an air of royalty? Ermine is associated with royalty, it’s usually just used as a decoration in small amounts, so I decided to just cover her in it. Because in the rest of the film I have her in a nightgown, not bothering to get dressed every day.”
Although unintentional, Powell drew inspiration for Sarah’s contrasting “feminine” gowns and her “masculine” and “butch” recreational attire from her previous designs for Tilda Swinton’s character in Orlando (1992): "I didn’t think about it at the time, it was just subliminal. I do think there is a similarity between the two films because Orlando was the last unconventional period film I’d done, so there is a similarity." Powell stated that Lanthimos wanted the women in the film to have natural hair and faces, whereas he wanted the men to wear considerable makeup and large wigs: “Normally films are filled with men and the women are the decoration in the background, and I’ve one many of those, so it was quite nice for it to be reversed this time where the women are the center of the film and the men are the decoration in the background. Of course, they’ve got serious, important parts, but I think the frivolity of them is quite funny." Powell would deliver the costumes, see to it that they fit and that the actors had no problems, and would leave the set, per Lanthimos' request. She described his directing style:
“He knew he wanted to be left alone with his actors and his camera. A lot of the time I wasn’t aware of how it was going to be. Even when you see the dailies, you can’t really tell until it’s all put together [...] But when it all comes together, you’re like of course it was all going to come together, he knows exactly what he’s doing. We were all part of the jigsaw and he could put all the pieces together.”
For cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the most challenging aspect of filming was trying to capture fluid camera movement without the use of Steadicam: “We explored a lot of ways of trying to have a fluid camera movement that wasn’t a Steadicam move. He showed me a film early on called Angst [...] He wanted to try and instill that in the way we shot The Favourite, but it was going to be really difficult to do that. Because of the costumes and just the physicality of it, it was not going to be possible. So we tried to come up with ways of being as fluid as we could with the camera. That was exciting because we came up with some interesting rigs—we explored different gimbal rigs and things like that.” Lanthimos heavily encouraged Ryan to implement fisheye and wide lenses for a majority of the shots, which Ryan believed significantly contributed to the story: “The wide lens is twofold. By showing you the whole room and also isolating the character in a small space—like, a small character in a big space—you get a feeling of no escape. I think one of the critiques of the film said it was like a playground that turns into a battleground that turns into a prison. I think that’s a very good explanation of what the film tries to get across with these characters. I think the wide lenses are pretty integral to that, as well.”
The soundtrack includes pieces by classical composers Bach, Handel, Purcell and Vivaldi, as well as modern composers Olivier Messiaen, Luc Ferrari and Anna Meredith. Elton John's "Skyline Pigeon" plays over the end credits.
In May 2017, Fox Searchlight Pictures acquired distribution rights to the film. It had its world premiere at the 75th Venice International Film Festival on 30 August 2018. It also screened at the Telluride Film Festival, on 2 September 2018, the New York Film Festival on 28 September 2018, where it served as the opening night film, and the BFI London Film Festival on 18 October 2018. It is scheduled to have a limited release in the United States on 23 November 2018 and 1 January 2019 in UK Cinemas.
In its opening weekend, The Favourite grossed $422,410 from four theaters, a per-venue average of $105,603 (the best of 2018, beating Suspiria's $89,903). In its second weekend the film made $1.1 million from 34 theaters, an average of $32,500. In its third weekend the film has grossed 1.4 million from 94 theaters (up 33% from the previous week) In its third weekend, following its Golden Globe nominations, it made $1.4 million from 91 theaters.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 94% based on 177 reviews, and an average rating of 8.5/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "The Favourite sees Yorgos Lanthimos balancing a period setting against rich, timely subtext - and getting roundly stellar performances from his well-chosen stars." Metacritic gives the film a weighted average score of 91 out of 100, based on 46 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".
In his review for Entertainment Weekly, Chris Nashawaty gave an "A", praising the effective presentation of themes dealing with royalty and associated "steamier, fact adjacent subplots ... it's worth pointing out that The Favourite is easily Lanthimos' most user-friendly movie. Which isn't to say it isn't strange enough to please his fans, just that it may also convert a legion of new ones." Peter Travers from Rolling Stone give the movie 5 out of 5 stars saying, "Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and the mighty Olivia Colman turn a period piece into a caustic comeuppance comedy with fangs and claws - It's a bawdy, brilliant triumph, directed by Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos with all the artistic reach and renegade deviltry, The Favourite belongs to its fierce, profanely funny female trio."
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