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 the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland, and the United States. Set in early 18th-century England, the story examines the relationship between two cousins, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (played by Rachel Weisz), and Abigail Masham, who later became Baroness Masham (Emma Stone), vying to be Court favourites of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Filming took place at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire and at Hampton Court Palace in Hampton Court, Surrey between March and May 2017.
The film premiered at the 75th Venice International Film Festival on 30 August 2018, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Volpi Cup for Best Actress (for Colman). It was released in the United States on 23 November 2018 by Fox Searchlight Pictures and in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland on 1 January 2019. The film became a box-office success, grossing $95 million worldwide on a $15 million budget.
The Favourite received widespread critical acclaim, particularly for its screenplay, direction, acting, cinematography, costume design, production values, and music. It received numerous awards and nominations, including ten Academy Award nominations, tied with Roma for the most nominations of any film that year. The Favourite also won a leading 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.
It is 1704, and England 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, one for each of the children she has lost. 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 (who was later created, in May 1711, The 1st Earl of Oxford) and Earl Mortimer, the Leader of the Opposition, who as a landowner, argues against a doubling of property taxes proposed in order to fund the war.
Abigail Hill, Sarah's impoverished younger cousin, arrives in search of employment. Abigail's standing is 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, but, after seeing the Queen's gout, forages for herbs and then applies them to the Queen's inflamed legs. Sarah has her whipped for her entering the Queen’s bedroom without permission, but relents and makes her lady of the bedchamber after she realises that the herbs have helped the Queen. Harley asks Abigail to spy on Sarah and the Queen, hoping to circumvent Sarah's authority. Abigail witnesses Sarah and the Queen having sex.
With Sarah focused on the war effort, Abigail kindles a friendship with Anne, which becomes sexual. 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 on the ground unconscious. Sarah awakens in a brothel, battered from the fall. Anne, thinking that Sarah has abandoned her to make her jealous, takes Abigail into her favour. She allows her to marry Samuel, 1st Baron Masham, reinstating Abigail's noble standing.
When Sarah returns to court, she issues an ultimatum to Queen Anne: 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. A remorseful Sarah burns the letters but Anne nevertheless sends her away from court. When Abigail, now promoted to Keeper of the Privy Purse, presents what she claims is evidence that Sarah had been embezzling money, Anne exiles Sarah and her husband from Britain.
While lounging in the Queen's chamber, Abigail abuses one of Anne's rabbits by deliberately pressing down on its neck with her shoe. Anne, now very sick, is awakened by the animal's distress cry. Finally realizing Abigail's cruel nature, Anne forces herself out of bed and orders Abigail to massage her legs as if she were a servant, while gradually bearing down on Abigail's head with her hand.
- Olivia Colman as Queen Anne
- Emma Stone as Abigail. She later becomes Baroness Masham after her husband's ennoblement in 1712.
- Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah
- Nicholas Hoult as Harley
- Joe Alwyn as Masham
- James Smith as Godolphin
- Mark Gatiss as Lord Marlborough
- Jenny Rainsford as Mae
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, titled The Balance of Power, to producer Ceci Dempsey, who responded enthusiastically. Davis had little knowledge of the Queen 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:
This 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. I felt that it was an interesting story in its own right, but you also have the opportunity to create three complex female characters which is something you rarely see". Of her working relationship with Lanthimos, Dempsey said:
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". However, Dempsey had difficulty securing financing at the time, due to the lesbian content, as well as the lack of male representation, which financers felt would be challenging to market. Almost a decade later, producer Ed Guiney got hold of the script and was similarly attracted to the complicated plot and relationships of the three women. "We didn't want to make just another British costume drama", he stated, "[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 and approached him with the prospect of directing the film. Lanthimos immediately became intrigued with the idea that “[t]hese three women possessed power that affected the lives of millions” and at the same time found the story to be “intimate” as well. Lanthimos then began working closely with screenwriter Tony McNamara on “freshening up” the script. By 2013, the producers were receiving financing offers from several companies, including Film4 Productions and Waypoint Entertainment, which eventually worked on the film.
In September 2015, it was announced that 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:
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 began in 2014 when Lanthimos first contacted Colman. By September 2015, it was announced that Emma Stone, Olivia Colman and Kate Winslet had been cast in the film, portraying 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 part of the cast.
Casting was crucial for Lanthimos, who describes his process as "instinctive": "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, who declined. Stone auditioned after asking her agent to contact Lanthimos. Lanthimos then asked that Stone 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 nothing more than 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 that the difference between Anne and the previous queens she has played was that "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 due to 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 she finished reading the script and ended up "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."
Despite having less dynamic roles, Hoult and Alwyn were intrigued to be a 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 which a three-way love-power struggle would have for audiences. Alwyn shared similar views: "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 had been expected to begin in the spring of 2016, but was pushed back a year, during which time Lanthimos made The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Principal photography began in March 2017 at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, and had finished by May; there were 45 shooting days. Regarding his choice of Hatfield, Lanthimos said "from the beginning, I had this image of these lonely characters in (a) huge space."
Prior to principal photography, Lanthimos engaged the principal 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. "He had us do all sorts of things that keep you from thinking about what your lines mean," Colman said. According to Weisz, another 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".
The most challenging aspect of filming for cinematographer Robbie Ryan was trying to capture fluid camera movement without the use of Steadicam:
Lanthimos encouraged Ryan to use fisheye and wide lenses for a majority of the shots, which Ryan believed significantly contributed to the story:
Production designer Fiona Crombie drew inspiration for the film's colour palette from the chequered black-and-white marble floor in the house's Great Hall, 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 alterations were made to various rooms in the house, particularly for the Queen's room, which included removing paintings, furniture and other decorations, in order to "put our own language into it". As with most of Lanthimos' works, the film implements natural lighting as opposed to artificial lighting, which proved to be somewhat challenging for the night time scenes, which were candle-lit: "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".
Costume designer Sandy Powell specifically sought out Lanthimos, having been a fan of his previous work, including Dogtooth and Alps (2011). Regarding Abigail, Powell wanted the character's rise to power to be reflected in her costumes. "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," she said. Although Queen Anne spends most of her time in the film in a nightgown because she is ill, Powell wanted her to have an "iconic" look, and so constructed a robe made of ermine, explaining that
Although unintentional, Powell drew inspiration for Sarah's contrasting "feminine" gowns and her "masculine" and "butch" recreational attire from her previous designs for Tilda Swinton's character in Orlando (1992): "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 that Lanthimos wanted the women in the film to have natural hair and faces, whereas he wanted the men to wear considerable makeup and large wigs: "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, see to it that they fit and that the actors had no problems and would leave the set, as Lanthimos requested. She described his directing style:
The soundtrack is chiefly baroque and classical music: it includes pieces by W.F. and J.S. Bach, Handel, Purcell (his Music for a While), and Vivaldi, Schubert (his Piano Trio No. 2 and Piano Sonata in B♭), and Schumann (his Piano Quintet), but also works by the 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 may appear to be contemporary with the time that the film is set, had in fact not been composed at the time: 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, has said "There was no composer on this film; we were working a lot in that space between music and sound," adding that he used "specific EQ frequencies to shape [atmospheric sound] like score."
In May 2017, Fox Searchlight Pictures acquired distribution rights to the film. It had its world premiere at the 75th Venice International Film Festival on 30 August 2018. It also screened 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 was released on Digital HD on 12 February 2019, and on Blu-ray and DVD on 5 March 2019.
The Favourite grossed $34.4 million in the United States and Canada and $61.6 million in other territories, for a total worldwide gross of $95.9 million.
In its opening weekend, The Favourite 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. It opened nationwide 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 379 reviews, and an average rating of 8.49/10. 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 90 out of 100, based on 53 critics, indicating "universal acclaim". Audiences polled by PostTrak gave the film 2.5 out of 5 stars 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". "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," he wrote. 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 special note of the strength of the film's female characters. Entertainment Weekly, in their assessment of the year's best films, had two reviewers listing the film in first place, with one, Leah Greenblatt, remarking "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."
The film, which has received multiple awards and nominations, 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 has said, "Some of the things in the film are accurate and a lot aren't." While the broad outlines of the rivalry for Anne's attentions are true, many of the major episodes and themes of the film are fictional or speculative. In particular, any evaluation of the sexual aspect to the film's relationships requires understanding different mores and practices and use of language from a time long past. Arguments both for and against the possibilities have been discussed by scholars of the era.
Historians consider it unlikely that Anne was physically intimate with her female friends. Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (who is erroneously referred to in the film as 'Lady Marlborough', had become Her Grace The Duchess of Marlborough in 1702). She is known to have tried blackmailing Anne with the threat of publishing private letters between them, which might have led to a supposition that the Queen practised such sexual habits.
Alwyn said that there was little concern for historical research of characters' backgrounds:
In his review of the film, Anthony Lane comments on its anachronisms: "For Lanthimos and his screenwriters, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, 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." As J.R. Kinnard writes for PopMatters:
Queen Anne was close to Prince George, Duke of Cumberland, her Danish husband, who was not portrayed in the film but was alive for most of the time covered (he died in October 1708). Her 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 since at that time rabbits were considered food at best (and pests otherwise).
Emma Stone has indicated an interest in a possible sequel which would follow the political career of the male characters in the film. As stated in the Hollywood Reporter, "[Stone] added that if there was a sequel, she hoped that it would follow Nicholas Hoult's character Robert Harley. 'Hopefully, it would be Harley's [Nicholas Hoult's pompous parliamentarian] story,' she said. 'I would love to see where Harley goes from there.'"