Now that the Oscar nominations are out (to be commented on at a later time), it’s probably time to write about The Favourite, which ties with Roma for the greatest number of nominations with 10. I love historical films, and The Favourite is beautifully shot and directed, nasty as could be, and so far from historical truth as to be called a fantasy. The latter two “attributes” are what turn this film sour.
To its credit, the film looks great, with lovely production design and beautiful cinematography, especially in its lighting. Acting also didn’t get much better in 2018 than with the three lead performances (Olivia Coleman and Oscar winners Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone), and even the supporting ones (Nicholas Hoult and Mark Gatiss).
Where to begin with its inaccuracies? Articles that tend to dismiss the inaccuracies often point to the so-called “real” theme of the film, which is the use and misuse of power, specifically with women of another era, and in a court setting. If only the film had stuck to that. But part of the power struggle from a bitter former “favourite” included an accusation of lesbianism between Queen Anne (1665-1714) and the second “favourite” in the film. According to fact-checking sources, this was indeed an accusation, but one that was highly unlikely to be true, and had dire consequences for the accuser. The film leaves this power theme buried, however, under a layer of overheated sexual dynamics. The film completely cuts out Queen Anne’s husband, for instance, whom she apparently loved deeply, and with whom she slept every night until his death. The film acknowledges her 17 (yes, 17) pregnancies but otherwise virtually eliminates the love of Anne’s life.
As with far too many historically-based films, The Favourite completely cuts out the Queen’s faith, which was a key factor behind the scenes leading up to her accessing the throne, and which was an important part of her life. In fact, her personal Christian faith, and in particular, her devotion to the Anglican church when it would have served her better to have been a Catholic in the early years, is worthy of a film itself. The historical consensus is that she would have considered lesbianism a particularly vile sin (along with much of the world in which she lived), that she loved her husband very much and stayed with him in a close bond until his death, and that the letters of affection between the queen and her first favourite were typical of female expressions of the time, especially among the aristocracy and ruling classes.
Unfortunately for historical accuracy, the film goes off in a number of wrong historical directions. The admittedly fascinating power struggles are sexualized far beyond what seems to have happened (which distracts from and dilutes this supposedly important theme), [spoiler alert] a poisoning that features strongly in the film never happened, the costumes are not close to real for the times, there were no rabbits inside the castle, and let’s not get started on the court dance sequence, which seem more out of a drugged fever dream than anything close to might have occurred at court. The greatest damage of all, of course, is to Queen Anne herself. Of course, she’s not here to defend herself or even the truth about herself, and neither is our collective memory of her strong enough to be offended on her behalf. But how many other films are about the queen to counteract this fantasy? Can anyone name even one? Talented director Yorgos Lanthimos, director of off-kilter films such as The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, knows how to deviate from reality with skill and panache. But real events and people are ill served here by such an approach.
I’ve long lamented other films that are just “OK,” but will regrettably remain the definitive word on a particular subject (e.g., Red Tails). But this overheated spin-off on real people and real events is likely to stand for a long time as what people will remember about Queen Anne and her court. Perhaps it’s because my father was a history teacher that I value historical accuracy so much, or because I have been written about in a particularly inaccurate and accusing way—either way, I tend to view the twisting of facts in film as a lack of imagination on the part of screenwriters, who often shape real people and events into their patterns (many hackneyed and paint-by-numbers) instead of creatively re-presenting reality into dramatic form. It’s understood that all historical films (from older studio films right up to Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, and PBS’s Victoria) are going to re-arrange events chronologically, skip over people and occurrences deemed unimportant, and combine characters and actions. Victoria in particular seems to love to impose preferred modern socio-political perspectives on 19-century events and people. But The Favourite is in a league of its own, and its high production values and stellar acting only make the fictional world it creates more acceptable and believable. All film art deceives to some extent, but the damage to real historical figures and actions doesn’t justify this film’s deviations from reality.
I was also struck by the vile tone throughout. Again, that’s the artist’s prerogative, but I personally struggled with whether mouthwash or a shower was the most applicable response to a viewing. There isn’t a truly decent person in the film, nor any decency shown. My region’s most highly regarded film writer even went so far as to leave the film off his “Best of 2018” list for just that reason, which gave me personal encouragement regarding my reaction, and made me respect him even more.
When it comes to The Favourite, I can’t bemoan that a historically based film is only so-so, and will therefore be a lame representation of real events until a superior film version comes along. The opposite is true: the film is formally stunning. But it has an ugly heart underneath, and veers so far from the truth as to be useless, and even damaging, to the historical events it purports to present. Just think of it as an especially dark and twisted tale using historical events, and as true to reality as 300 and Disney’s Pocahontas.