The Favourite is a 2018 period black comedy film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, and written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. It is a co-production of studios based in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the United States. Set in early 18th century Great Britain, the film's plot examines the relationship between two cousins, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), who are vying to be Court favourite of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Principal photography lasted from March to May 2017, taking place at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire and at Hampton Court Palace.
UK theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Yorgos Lanthimos|
|Edited by||Yorgos Mavropsaridis|
|Distributed by||Fox Searchlight Pictures|
|Box office||$95.9 million|
The Favourite premiered on 30 August 2018 at the 75th Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Volpi Cup for Best Actress for Colman. It was theatrically released in the United States on 23 November 2018 by Fox Searchlight Pictures, and in the United Kingdom and Ireland on 1 January 2019. The film became a box office success, grossing $95 million worldwide on a $15 million budget.
The Favourite was praised for the performances of the three leads, and it received numerous awards and nominations, including ten Academy Award nominations, tying Roma for the most nominations of that year. The Favourite also won seven BAFTA Awards (including Best British Film and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Weisz) and ten British Independent Film Awards. Colman won Best Actress at the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, and the BAFTAs. The film was ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the top ten films of 2018. The film also won eight European Film Awards including Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress for Colman.
In 1711, Great Britain is at war with France. Queen Anne is in frail health; she shows little interest in governing, preferring activities such as racing ducks and playing with her 17 rabbits, surrogates for the children she miscarried or lost in childhood. Her confidante, adviser, and furtive lover Sarah Churchill effectively rules the country through her influence over the Queen. Sarah's efforts to control Anne are undermined by Robert Harley, the Leader of the Opposition, who as a landowner argues against a doubling of property taxes proposed to fund the war.
Abigail Hill, Sarah's impoverished younger cousin, arrives in search of employment. Abigail's standing has been tainted by her father, who gambled her away in a game of whist. Abigail is forced to do menial work as a scullery maid in the palace. After seeing the Queen's gout, Abigail forages for herbs and applies them to the Queen's inflamed legs. Sarah has Abigail whipped for entering the Queen's bedroom without permission but relents and appoints her Lady of the Bedchamber after realising the herbs have helped the Queen. Harley asks Abigail to spy on Sarah and the Queen, hoping to circumvent Sarah's authority. Abigail refuses Harley's offer, and then tells Sarah about this, but receives a subtle threat from her in case she cannot be trusted. Abigail witnesses Sarah and the Queen having sex.
With Sarah focused on the war effort, Abigail kindles a friendship with Anne that becomes sexual. Wanting to become a lady once again, she reconsiders Harley's offer. Sarah becomes aware of Abigail's machinations and attempts to send her away. Abigail drugs Sarah's tea, causing her to fall off her horse and be dragged unconscious on the ground. Sarah awakens in a brothel, battered from the fall. Anne, thinking Sarah has abandoned her to make her jealous, takes Abigail into her favour and allows her to marry Colonel Masham, reinstating Abigail's noble standing as a Baroness, with the help of Harley. Abigail then helps Harley's influence on the Queen's decision about the war grow.
When Sarah returns to court, Abigail offers her a truce but is instead rejected and slapped. Sarah then issues an ultimatum to Queen Anne: change her stance on the war and send Abigail away or Sarah will disclose her correspondence with Anne that details their sexual relationship. She tells Anne that Abigail does not love her and merely flatters her. Sarah, remorseful, burns the letters but Anne nevertheless sends her away from court. Godolphin convinces Anne to mend her relationship with Sarah if the latter sends a letter, then persuades Sarah to send one. Anne eagerly awaits for Sarah's letter, while Sarah attempts to express what she feels in writing. When Abigail, who has been promoted to Keeper of the Privy Purse, presents what she claims is evidence Sarah had been embezzling money, Anne does not believe her. Sarah's letter finally arrives but is intercepted by Abigail who tearfully burns it. Hurt that she did not receive the expected apology, Anne uses Abigail's claims about the embezzlement as an excuse to exile Sarah and her husband from Britain.
With Sarah gone and her position secure, Abigail begins to neglect and ignore Anne while indulging in court society and openly having affairs. One day, while lounging in the Queen's chamber, Abigail abuses one of Anne's rabbits. Anne, now very sick, is awakened by the animal's distressed cry and sees what Abigail is doing. Anne forces herself out of bed and angrily orders Abigail to kneel and massage her leg. She gradually pulls Abigail's hair and bears down on her head as Abigail winces and continues to begrudgingly massage her.
Deborah Davis wrote the first draft of The Favourite in 1998. She had no prior screenwriting experience and studied screenwriting at night school. She took the draft, which was titled The Balance of Power, to producer Ceci Dempsey, who responded enthusiastically. Davis had little knowledge of Queen Anne and her relationships with Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham; her research led her to the discovery of a "female triangle". She studied 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 favour by Abigail and how Abigail had become the absolute favourite.
The Favourite is the first film Lanthimos directed with screenwriters Davis and McNamara. Lanthimos was attracted to Davis' and McNamara's script, and "became acquainted with the three female characters who happened to be real people". Lanthimos felt the story was interesting and also had a chance "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.
Producer Ceci Dempsey, who read the first draft, said she was "haunted" by "the passion, the survival instincts of these women, the manipulations and what they did to survive". Dempsey had difficulty securing finance due to the script's lesbian content and the lack of male representation, which financers felt would be challenging to market. Almost a decade later, producer Ed Guiney obtained the script and was also attracted to the complex plot and relationships of the three women; he said, "We didn't want to make just another British costume drama ... [we wanted] a story that felt contemporary and relevant and vibrant—not something out of a museum".
During this time, Guiney became acquainted with Lanthimos, whose film Dogtooth (2009) had received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Guiney approached him with the prospect of directing the film. Lanthimos immediately became intrigued with the idea "[t]hese three women possessed power that affected the lives of millions"; at the same time he found the story to be "intimate". Lanthimos began working closely with screenwriter Tony McNamara on "freshening up" the script, after reading McNamara's pilot script for The Great. By 2013, the producers were receiving financing offers from several companies, including Film4 Productions and Waypoint Entertainment, which later worked on the film.
In September 2015, it was announced Lanthimos would direct the film from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara's screenplay, 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. On the film's lesbian-centric love triangle, Lanthimos said:
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.
He also elaborated on the "positive" effect the Me Too movement has 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."
Casting for The Favourite began in 2014 when Lanthimos contacted Colman. By September 2015, it was announced Emma Stone, Olivia Colman and Kate Winslet had been cast to portray Abigail Masham, Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill, respectively. By October 2015, Rachel Weisz had replaced Winslet. The Favourite is the second collaboration between Lanthimos, Colman and Weisz: both actors appeared in 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 members of the cast.
Casting was crucial for Lanthimos, who describes his process as "instinctive"; he said, "It's one of those things when you feel you're right and you need to insist no matter what". Colman was his only choice for Queen Anne. After Winslet left the project, Lanthimos offered the role to Cate Blanchett. Stone auditioned after asking her agent to contact Lanthimos, who then asked Stone to work with a dialect coach. "It was making sure that we would be able to work creatively free without the accent being a hindrance in the way that we wanted to work", Lanthimos said.
Colman found playing Anne "a joy because she sort of feels everything". When asked if the character was just a petulant child, she responded, "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." Colman said the difference between Anne and the previous queens she has played was "the other queens didn't get to fall in love with two hot women". Weisz described the film as a comedy, comparing it to a "funnier, sex driven" All About Eve and was primarily attracted to the project by the prominent female leads, considering her role to be "the juiciest" of her career. Stone was 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 then "begging" Lanthimos to be cast. 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 intrigued to be 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, commenting on the audience appeal a three-way love-power struggle would have for audiences. Alwyn shared similar views, saying; "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."
Filming was expected to begin in the spring of 2016 but was postponed for a year, during which time Lanthimos made The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Principal photography began in March 2017 at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire; there were 45 filming days and filming finished in May. Regarding his choice of location, Lanthimos said, "from the beginning, I had this image of these lonely characters in (a) huge space".
Prior to principal photography, Lanthimos engaged the main actors in an unorthodox rehearsal process that lasted three weeks. The actors "delivered their lines while trying to tie themselves in knots, jumping from carpet tile to carpet tile, or writhing around on the floor", according to the New York Times. A Coleman said, "He had us do all sorts of things that keep you from thinking about what your lines mean". According to Weisz, one exercise involved the actors linking arms to create a "human pretzel". "Somebody's butt is in your face, your face is in their butt, and you're saying the lines for a really serious, dramatic scene while doing that", she said. According to Stone, Lanthimos wanted to see "how much we could sense each other without seeing each other". Lanthimos said he believed the rehearsals allowed 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".
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 instil 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.
The wide lens is twofold. By showing you the whole room and also isolating the character in a small space ... you get a feeling of no escape. I think one of the critiques of the film believed 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.
Production designer Fiona Crombie drew inspiration for the film's colour palette from the chequered, black-and-white marble floor in the Great Hall at Hatfield House, 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 rooms at the house were altered, particularly for the Queen's room, which included removing paintings, furniture and other decorations, to "put our own language into it". The filmmakers used mostly natural lighting, which proved challenging for the candle-lit night time scenes; Crombie said, "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".
Because she was a fan of his previous work, costume designer Sandy Powell specifically sought out Lanthimos. Powell wanted Abigail's rise to power to be reflected in her costumes; she said, "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 the film's Queen Anne spends most of her time wearing a nightgown because she is ill, Powell wanted her to have an "iconic" look and constructed a robe made of ermine, saying:
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 bejewelled, 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 recreational attire from her previous designs for Tilda Swinton's character in Orlando (1992); she said, "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 Lanthimos wanted the women in the film to have natural hair and faces but he wanted the men to wear considerable makeup and large wigs. He said; "Normally films are filled with men and the women are the decoration in the background, and I've done many of those, so it was quite nice for it to be reversed this time where the women are the centre 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, check they fitted the actors and that the actors had no problems and would leave the set, as Lanthimos requested. 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.
The soundtrack of The Favourite consists mostly of baroque and classical music, including pieces by W. F. and J. S. Bach, Handel, Purcell, Vivaldi, and Schubert. It also includes works by 20th-century composers Olivier Messiaen and Luc Ferrari, and the contemporary British composer Anna Meredith. The first song to play over the closing credits is "Skyline Pigeon" by Elton John, from his début album Empty Sky (1969).
Much of the music that appears to be contemporaneous with the time in which the film is set was composed later; for example, Bach's organ Fantasia in G minor, Schubert's Piano Trio no. 2 and Piano Sonata in B flat, and Schumann's Piano Quintet. The film's sound designer Johnnie Burn said; "There was no composer on this film; we were working a lot in that space between music and sound". He also said he used "specific EQ frequencies to shape [atmospheric sound] like score".
In May 2017, Fox Searchlight Pictures acquired the distribution rights to The Favourite. It had its world premiere at the 75th Venice International Film Festival on 30 August 2018. It was screened the film at the BFI London Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival, and was the opening-night film at the New York Film Festival. The Favourite was given a limited release in the United States on 23 November 2018, and was released in the United Kingdom and Ireland on 1 January 2019.
The Favourite grossed $34.4 million in the United States and Canada, and $61.6 million in other territories, for a worldwide gross of $95.9 million. In its opening weekend, the film grossed $422,410 from four theaters, a per-venue average of $105,603. It was 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, following its Golden Globe nominations, it made $1.4 million from 91 theaters, and then $2.6 million from 439 theaters in its fourth.
The Favourite opened across the U.S. in its fifth weekend, grossing $2.1 million from 790 theaters and then $2.4 million in its sixth weekend. In the film's 10th week of release, following the announcement of its ten Oscar nominations, it was added to 1,023 theaters (for a total of 1,540) and made $2.5 million, an increase of 212% from the previous weekend.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 93% based on 403 reviews, with an average rating of 8.52/10. 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 53 critics, indicating "universal acclaim". Audiences polled by PostTrak gave the film 2.5 stars out of 5 and a 37% "definite recommend".
In his review for Entertainment Weekly, Chris Nashawaty gave the film an "A" rating, praising the effective presentation of themes dealing with royalty and associated "steamier, fact-adjacent subplots". He wrote, "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 gave the movie five 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."
Anthony Lane, writing for The New Yorker, contrasted the film's ″unmistakable whiff of ... fun" to the mood of Lanthimos' previous film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, making note of the strength of the film's female characters. Two reviewers for Entertainment Weekly, in their assessment of the year's best films, listed the film in first place, with Leah Greenblatt writing, "You might not actually want to live in Yorgos Lanthimos' sticky tar pit of palace intrigue—a place where Olivia Colman's batty Queen can't trust anyone beyond her pet rabbits, and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone treat loyalty like a blood sport—but God it's fun as hell to visit". David Sims writing for The Atlantic magazine found the film to be an effective satire of its historical period, stating; "Were it just a straightforward comedy, The Favourite would still be a success. It has plenty of satirical bite, and its plot structure (the roller-coaster-like power struggle between Abigail and Sarah) is an utter blast".
Conversely, Armond White of the National Review described the film as "period perversity," comparing it unfavorably to Stanley Kubrick's similar period drama Barry Lyndon. He wrote, "If Kubrick's 17th-century-set Barry Lyndon flaunted all his resources of cinematic expertise merely to satirize chilly inhumanity, making an evil masterpiece, then The Favourite is merely a wicked stunt."
The Favourite has received multiple awards and nominations, and won two Venice International Film Festival awards: the Grand Jury Prize and the Volpi Cup for Best Actress. It also won 10 British Independent Film Awards, including Best British Independent Film; Best Actress; Best Supporting Actress; Best Director, and Best Screenplay. It was nominated for five Golden Globe Awards, including Best Picture, and was ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the top 10 films of 2018. It was nominated for ten Oscars at the 91st Academy Awards—including Best Picture—and was thus tied with Roma as the most-nominated film of that year. Colman won the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Lanthimos said, "Some of the things in the film are accurate and a lot aren't". While the broad outlines of the characters' rivalry for Anne's attentions are true, many of the major episodes and themes of the film are fictional or speculative. Any evaluation of the sexual aspect to the film's relationships requires understanding of contemporaneous mores and practices, and use of language. Arguments both for and against the possibilities have been discussed by scholars of the era.
Historians consider it unlikely Anne was physically intimate with her female friends. Sarah Churchill, who is erroneously referred to in the film as 'Lady Marlborough', had become Duchess of Marlborough in 1702. She is known to have tried blackmailing Anne with the threat of publishing private letters between them; this has led some to wonder if the letters contained evidence the two women had a sexual relationship.
Alwyn said there was little concern for historical research of characters' backgrounds:
I think people turn up to the rehearsal period thinking maybe they should've read their history books and thought about their characters and their intentions and all of that stuff that you normally think about but Yorgos made it quite clear early on there wasn't going to be much consideration for historical accuracy to a degree. He wasn't too caught up with or concerned about that. He just wanted us to have fun as people, as a cast and to explore the relationships between us, which is what we did.
In his review of the film, Anthony Lane comments on its anachronisms, saying; "For Lanthimos and his screenwriters ... all historical reconstruction is a game and to pretend otherwise—to nourish the illusion that we can know another epoch as intimately as we do our own—is merest folly". J. R. Kinnard wrote for PopMatters:
History records that England was ruled for a brief period in the early 18th century by Queen Anne whose physical infirmities were rivalled only by her psychological quirks. She was indeed counseled by her lifelong friend and perhaps lover, Lady Sarah Churchill [sic] ... Finally, there was a chambermaid named Abigail Masham ... who infiltrated the highest levels of the royal house and, perhaps, Queen Anne's bed. The rest is left to the sordid imagination of one of the world's most fascinating filmmakers.
Queen Anne was close to Prince George, Duke of Cumberland (died October 1708), her Danish husband, who was not portrayed in the film but was alive for most of the time covered. Anne's health problems were severe enough that she may have had little sex drive. Some episodes are fictional, such as Masham's attempt to poison the Duchess of Marlborough. Anne's loss of children is accurate but she did not keep rabbits, which at that time were considered food or pests.
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