Dispatches from the Venice Film Festival: The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is set in the early 18th century. England is at war with France and yet duck races and pineapple consumption are going strong. In this caustic scenario the vulnerable Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) sits on the throne while her intimate friend Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), governs the country in her place and, at the same time, takes care of the ill health and the fickle temperament of the sovereign.

When the charming Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arrives at the court, she is loved by Sarah, who takes her under her protective wing. This turns out to be an opportunity for the servant who used to belong to the aristocracy and can now climb up the social ladder to return to the noble roots from which she descends. This will unfold a competition between two ladies battling to become the Queen’s “Favourite.”

The Greek filmmaker who rose to stardom thanks to the powerful way he explores the intricacies of clinical psychology — with works such as Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer  — delves into history, to show modern audiences how certain social dynamics thrive through time. “When you make a film set in another era, it’s always interesting to see how it relates to our times — and you realize how few things have changed, apart from the clothes and the fact that today we have electricity or internet. There are many similarities in behavior, society and power ,” said Yorgos Lanthimos

Besides the universality of human conducts, The Favourite effectively reconstructs how the Duchess of Marlborough was famous for telling the Queen exactly what she thought, without succumbing to gratuitous flattery. The two women were close, as one can see in the movie: Anne and Sarah had truly invented pet names for themselves during their youths, which they continued to use after Anne became queen: Mrs Freeman (Sarah) and Mrs Morley (Anne). Also Lady Churchill’s impoverished cousin really existed and became close to the Queen, who was present at Abigail’s secret wedding to Samuel Masham, groom of the bedchamber to Prince George, in 1707.

Lanthimos directs with efficacy the talented cast — that includes the likes of Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, James Smith, and Mark Gatiss plunging spectators into a vortex of manipulations and emotions that epitomize the expression “palace intrigue.” The Favourite turns out to be a witty black comedy period film, that explores the subtleties of mind games women play.