"The Favourite"

This movie will remind us Americans why we prefer democracy to monarchy. In the early 18th century, Queen Anne of England (Olivia Colman) was a miserable person. She suffered from severe gout. She overate until she made herself sick, and then ate some more. Though she was not old--barely into middle age--- she could barely walk. She had to be rolled in a wheelchair or carried by royal litter to her official functions; she could stand only with the help of crutches. She rarely left her own quarters, though there would have plenty to occupy her if she had been able and willing to manage the affairs of State. England was at war with France, and her advisors disagreed sharply about whether to pursue the fight vigorously (Whigs) or sue for peace lest their own populace rebel against the higher taxation needed for the continued war effort (Tories). What was needed was strong-minded, consistent leadership, and this Queen was just unw! illing or unable to provide it. She’d lost 17 children, mostly by miscarriage, and had no living survivors. So she raises 17 rabbits instead, and keeps them with her in her royal bedchambers. And occasionally lets them all out of their cages so she can play with them on the floor.

Into the void steps Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). She is happy to handle the difficult decisions as the Queen’s representative, while at the same time, in the privacy of the Queen’s bedchambers, carry on a quite intimate relationship. But Sarah is one of those people who consider themselves a truthteller. She does not know how to play at deceit and guile, which puts her at a disadvantage among the court officials, who thrive on gossip, deception, diplomacy, and manipulation. The men, in accordance with the custom at the time, dress in elaborate silk, with foppish make-up and huge curly wigs, w! hich make them all look like silly posers, and their irrelevan! ce opens the door for Sarah’s no-nonsense guidance.

But then a poor cutlery maid, Abigail (Emma Stone) enters the picture. When she finds out that the Queen suffers from the gout, she retrieves from the nearby forest medicinal herbs, and Sarah is so impressed with her initiative that she makes Abigail her handmaiden, a distinct promotion. But Abigail, who came from a good family that was later disgraced, is both well-educated and ruthlessly ambitious. She seeks the Queen’s favor in a very personal way, and the self-centered Queen happily embraces the fair young Abigail in her bed. Sarah is furious, and is determined to be rid of Abigail, but the Queen will not allow it. This sets up a strange kind of love triangle that can’t endure because Abigail and Sarah can now no longer tolerate each other’s presence. It just remains to be seen who will manage to banish! whom.

As for the main characters, there’s nobody to root for; they’re all tiresome and despicable. The sex is degrading and desultory.

The royal advisors dress like jesters and act like fools. There’s no love anywhere, much less romance. And this is the country that ruled the seven seas, and was a mighty world power for centuries?

A monarchy works well when the monarch is worthy of the title. This one hardly qualifies. It’s all about who’s in her bedroom with her, and she could care less about affairs of State. Fortunately, for England, Queen Anne’s reign didn’t last long. Fortunately, for Americans, later in the 18th century we decided that democracy is wo! rth fighting for. It still is. And this movie reminds us why.  

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association