A dark yet comic story about three hugely commanding women jockeying with raw abandon for love, favor and power that actually feels very contemporary.
The Favourite has been plucked from real history, set against the outrageously aristocratic tableau of 18th Century royals and marks the first period film of acclaimed Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, from a screenplay crafted by a first draft by Deborah Davis, a British lawyer, journalist and scriptwriter, and rewrites by Lanthimos and Tony McNamara, one of Australia’s most respected and revered ﬁlm and television creatives, and celebrated playwrights.
“When you make a film set in another time it is always interesting to see how it relates to our time-you realize how few things have changed apart from the costumes and the fact that we have electricity or internet,” says Lanthimos, who has directed a number of dance videos in collaboration with Greek choreographers, in addition to TV commercials, music videos, short films and theatre plays. ”There are so many ongoing similarities in human behaviour, societies and power.”
From the veiled world of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) – the last (and historically most ignored) of the Stuart line of Britain’s rulers— who though infamously gouty, shy and disregarded, nevertheless reigned as Great Britain became a global power. It is through Anne’s intricate relations with two other women of cunning and aspiration—her lifelong intimate friend and political advisor Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s penniless cousin turned social-climbing chambermaid Abigail (Emma Stone) – that the film dives into a whirlpool of manipulations and emotions that define the phrase “palace intrigue.”
As the politics of war become quite time consuming for Sarah, Abigail steps into the breach to fill in as the Queen’s companion. Their burgeoning friendship gives her a chance to fulfill her ambitions and she will not let woman, man, politics or rabbit stand in her way.
The film creates its own very alive universe, with Lanthimos playing freely with the external events of the day to service and motivate the inner lives and personal politics of his characters. And speculations aside, no one truly knows what went on verbally, physically or otherwise behind the doors of Queen Anne’s court, let alone in her bed.
For a story of such sprawling history, The Favourite takes place in a very insular world: largely within the confines of the Royal Palace’s walls where power plays, seductions, blood orange throwing and the occasional duck or lobster race transpire, detached from the realities of the outside world.
Though the film plays like a bedroom farce with global consequences, screenwriter Tony McNamara, who worked closely with Lanthimos from an original screenplay by Deborah Davis, concurs that it is ultimately a love story.
“The story is about how complicated love is, and how who you are as a person can be perverted and deformed by those complications,” he says. “We called it a comic tragedy and that’s what it is. It’s about these people who love each other, but there are so many other aspects of their personality and aspects of what they want in the world-at-large that get in the way of staying in love.”
Though Lanthimos veers into psychodynamics and inter-relational fireworks, the foundation of The Favourite began with the already mystery-laden reign of the real Queen Anne.
“What interested me most were these three characters, their power, their fragile relationships and how the behaviour of so few people could alter the course of a war and fate of a country. It is also for me a love story that can be quite funny and dramatic and gets dark,” says Lanthimos.
Queen Anne may be England’s least known ruler, not least of all because she left no heirs to speak of her, despite an extraordinary 17 pregnancies. (In fact, had Anne left an heir, there may have been no United States as such, since George III may never have been King.) Ascending to the throne at the turn of the 18th Century, essentially because no other Protestant successors to the Stuart royal line were available, she assumed the role of Queen just as England was on the verge of a tidal wave of changes. Anne would oversee a war with France, considered the first world war of modern times, and the uniting of England with Scotland to forge the Kingdom of Great Britain. She would also confront a shocking new era of acrimonious national division, with Whigs and Tories taking sides as partisans and bitterly battling each other for influence as a young two-party political system was born.
For the world of rapidly enlarging personal and political agendas in which she moved, Anne was not an obvious match as Queen and ruler. Plagued by incessant ill health, notoriously meek, anything but glamorous with her myriad skin and joint ailments, and having only a limited education, she was perceived as highly susceptible to manipulation.
This in turn meant Anne was beset upon by a flurry of people competing to gain influence by finding a way to gain her trust—or perhaps, her heart.
The singularity of Lanthimos’ vision sparked the producers to wonder how he might approach the manifold themes of Queen Anne’s power struggles. “Yorgos’ style can be elegant, simple and complicated all at the same time,” observes producer Ceci Dempsey. “He is an enigmatic individual who has this amazing ability to communicate through his films. There is a kind of subliminal magic that goes on with his storytelling, a kind of alchemy where you watch one of his films and a few days later you’re still coming up with more questions. He can be incredibly provocative in all the best ways.”
The two women who made their way deep into Anne’s inner sanctum created a triumvirate of female power-players uncommon for any time period, let alone in the so-called days of pre-Enlightenment.
The first was Lady Sarah Churchill, the legendarily sharp and alluring Duchess of Marlborough, Anne’s BFF since childhood who, once Anne took the throne, became a primary political adviser and perhaps (according to rumors that have swirled for centuries) her lover. The second was Abigail Masham, who was Sarah’s cousin by birth but reduced to destitution by family bankruptcy, joining the royal household as a lowly maid.
Nevertheless, Abigail would set in motion an epic, impassioned battle with Sarah to become Anne’s new “favourite,” making herself indispensable to the Queen, while pushing Anne in the opposite political direction that Lady Sarah was pulling.
That was the historical account. But the bones of the story come to life with a psychological and sensual resonance that escaped the history books.
It started with a screenplay by Deborah Davis, which producer Ceci Dempsey and her company Scarlet Films started developing two decades ago.
“The first draft of the script landed on my desk seemingly out of the blue,” Dempsey recalls. “It was a fantastic story of betrayal with a rare opportunity to see brilliant women behaving badly, and the fact that it’s based on a true story made it even more appealing. Since then, the script has gone through countless mutations but the core story, that of three women each struggling to survive by betraying the others, has endured.”
Davis had a wide canvas to work with from a historical standpoint, but felt compelled to focus on specific relationships in the brief but tumultuous reign of Queen Anne. “My focus was on the female triangle in Queen Anne’s bedchamber and this shift in Anne’s affections from Sarah to Abigail,” notes Davis. To research this triangle, Davis combed through volumes of letters between Sarah and Anne and Abigail and Harley. While a vivid picture of Sarah has been painted by her own memoir, “the original evidence for Abigail is sparse and comes mainly from Sarah,” says Davis, adding “there were interesting snippets to be found elsewhere where Abigail emerges as a ruthless chambermaid, and her trajectory clearly reveals her ambition.” The experience of researching this era in English Royalty led Davis to a better understanding of the period not always written about in history books. “My focus was always on the three women,” says Davis. “I wanted the audience to discover a period in 18th century English history where women held power and influenced events on the British political and European stage.”
It was in 2009 that Element Pictures’ Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe and Lee Magiday came aboard, and together with Dempsey became acquainted with Yorgos Lanthimos, a director hailing from Greece who was making waves with his Oscar-nominated film Dogtooth, a darkly absurd and devastating story of an isolated family that confines its children with unsettling consequences. Film4 boarded the film in 2013, developing the project alongside the filmmakers and co-financing alongside Fox Searchlight and Waypoint Entertainment.
Recalls Guiney, “We both felt that Dogtooth was an extraordinary exploration of the nature of a family. It showed Yorgos’ ability to explore different facets of our lives–be it family, be it love, be it companionship, or whatever it might be—by telling heightened stories that exist in parallel worlds that nevertheless evoke the very essence of how we interact with each other.”
Says producer Ed Guiney: “We knew that if Yorgos were to take on the British costume drama, he would re-shape it to create something utterly unique. That was exciting. Yorgos is someone who not only has a vision, but can marshal that vision to say something bold, distinctive and inspiring. When you find people with that kind of vision, you roll with them wherever they might take you.”
When they shared the early draft of The Favourite with Lanthimos in 2010, he saw “something kind of extraordinary and very unusual in it,” says the director. “I was intrigued by the idea of making a film that had three women as main protagonists. It seemed very rare back then.”
All the while Lanthimos continued to ponder The Favourite, while the team searched for a writer whose voice could mesh with his.
They found a catalytic match in Australian playwright and screenwriter Tony McNamara, who seemed to share a tantalizing way of probing the weirdness and wildness of everyday human behavior.
As Guiney explains, “Tony’s writing is incredibly distinctive. He has great tonal dexterity, where he can leap from high drama to tragedy to comedy all in one scene. I think it’s reminiscent of Yorgos as a filmmaker in that he can compress many different kinds of emotional contradictions into a single beat. It felt like a great marriage when they came together. It unlocked the potential of the film for Yorgos, knowing he had a writer who could go the whole distance with him.” Adds Dempsey, “Tony shares Yorgos’ irreverence, wit, unpredictability, love of the absurd and dark, dark humour. They also share the same kind of artistic discipline, which was so important.”
McNamara says he was drawn to the film precisely because Lanthimos was clear that he did not want to make anything remotely resembling standard period drama fare. In fact, he wanted to break the genre.
“I loved being given the chance to wonder: what liberties could really be taken? It was a great opportunity to do something unlike anything I’d done before.”
Favoring complexity and feel over slavishness to historical fact, Lanthimos and McNamara discussed guidelines that informed the rewrite from the start.
“We talked about having the characters feel contemporary, to be so complicated that you can’t just read their intentions quickly—or you think you can but you soon realize you can’t,” says McNamara. “We were seeking a certain freshness, a certain irreverence and a certain fun in the dialogue and the action of the scenes.”
In thinking about the script’s architecture, the pair honed in on the women’s converging relationships. “We chose early on not to make the movie one person’s story,” McNamara elaborates.
“The idea was to follow this triangle, to see how these three lives intersecting affect history. It was important that no one woman owns the POV of the story.”
Certainly one convention of costume drama McNamara and Lanthimos torpedoed was staid manners.
“That was one of the things in period films I didn’t like – how polite they were,” McNamara says. “And even though we knew this was society of manners at that time, underneath that we wanted to show a sort of casual cruelty. Society was rigid and you were stuck where you were, so all you had was your ability to influence other people and to shift yourself and your motive; to shift your ground. That was why people operated with such hardcore cruelty at times.” As he wrote, McNamara referred to written accounts of the period for context and concepts but he never allowed the story to be cemented down by history. “
As an Australian and a Greek, Yorgos and I weren’t attached to English history, so maybe we felt more free to be fast and loose with it,” McNamara muses.
“There’s a fundamental truth to the big events and the big frame of the story, but we were mostly concerned with exploring these three women. So where the established history was useful to us it stayed, and where it wasn’t useful to us we let it go. It was quite fun to do.” Throughout the process, McNamara and Lanthimos spent an unusual amount of time together, travelling to Italy to take long walks and sit for ponderous meals while sharpening the dialogue to a point.
“All of that helped me to fuse the writing with Yorgos’ vision as a director,” says McNamara. After four years of collaboration, the finished screenplay was everything the producers imagined when they first considered Lanthimos. The ambiguity of the characters was intense, but what also struck Dempsey and Guiney was just how unusually proactive and authoritative the three women in the story felt, and not only because they were essentially ruling Great Britain.
“You see women behave in this film in ways that they often behave in real life, but that you don’t often see in the movies,” observes Guiney. “They are absolutely in control, but at other times are capricious, jealous, angry, and like most of us, absolutely flawed. You see that in all its glory, all its ambiguity, all its frailty, all its power. And then when you put these same women into the pressure cooker of a country at war and at the epicentre of decision making, it results in something pretty original.”
“There is also a level of physicality that you don’t see in a period film, unless it is two men duelling,” adds Dempsey. “In The Favourite, the women are pigeon shooting, galloping on horses, charging down corridors, physically seducing men in the wood and having sex together.”
“For me it was never important to accurately show a particular time period or a certain court or even a specific country. I was interested in the characters and the position that they occupied in that society. A position of power of the selected few that could affect the lives of many other human beings. We were inspired by the real people and stories but largely reimagined them in order to make a film that hopefully alludes to similar issues that we all can identify with or recognize in our everyday contemporary lives,” concludes Lanthimos.