This is Queen Anne’s court. The 18th century monarch was the last of her Stuart line, and – although she was the first sovereign to rule all of Great Britain – her story has been overlooked in historical dramatisations. Until now, she’s been upstaged by the behemoth reputations of Elizabeth I and Victoria; when we first meet Anne (in Olivia Colman, flawless), you can see why biographers and historians might have held back. Petulant, infantile, fragile and thoroughly spoilt, Anne prefers to leave the affairs of the country in the hands of sharp-witted Lady Sarah Marlborough (Weisz).
Ostensibly, this is to free up valuable cake-eating and bunny-fondling time (she has 17 rabbits, one for every miscarriage and still birth). Beneath the frivolity, though, Anne’s impotence stems from profound self-doubt compounded by atrocious entitlement – a heady, deadly mix. Pushed from pillar to post since birth, a pawn and a queen (literally) on the same chess board, the collision of coddling and utilitarian flattery has made a monster of her. Everyone wants something from Anne, and she swings between granting their every wish and screaming at musicians to stop practicing tunes she can’t herself play. On the one hand, Marie Antoinette: her endless stacks of cream gateaux and blasé attitude towards the fate of her country make Anne infuriating to watch. On the other, a broken woman carried from room to room on the shoulders of people plotting her demise: it feels, at moments watching The Favourite, impossible to imagine a more tragic figure. Ah, but! In bed, all bets are off. A body is a body is a body – and a body is all Anne is sure she has left. Between sheets, she can call in all the favours she wants rather than pulling them out of hats for other people.
It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement; transactional, wordless. The Queen’s ‘favourite’, it emerges, is the one unlacing her corset at the end of the day, climbing into the Royal four-poster bed to deliver a euphemistic ‘leg massage’ and slipping politics between whispered Sweet Nothings. Darling, let’s double the land tax! While we’re never allowed to become voyeurs, Lanthimos flirts as blatantly as Sarah’s usurper Abigail (Emma Stone), offering a close-up on her eyes while nimble fingers work off camera. Hierarchy and heart-felt hatred dance into the Sapphic circle between Anne, Sarah and Abigail – Queen, Lady and Servant – emerging as an amorphous matrix whose true centre proves impossible to find. Are these tussles for business or pleasure? We’re tugged between the two, learning the ropes along with novice Abigail on her journey to the top. A double bass creeps in again and again in The Favourite, taut strings announcing tension: an ugly outcome on the horizon. Brace yourself.