All About Abigail: An ingénue servant challenges Queen Anne's confidante in Yorgos Lanthimos' 'The Favourite'

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The Film Society of Lincoln Center jump-started the 56th annual New York Film Festival this fall by playing The Favourite for its Opening Night Attraction—playing it twice, in fact, as that picture’s director, Yorgos Lanthimos, pointed out with pride and delight. “Dual screenings the same night!” he beamed, not realizing back-to-back screenings is what traditionally happens to the first film out of the festival barrel.

His previous NYFF brush—The Lobster, starring two of his three Favourite women, Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman—came midway through the 2015 festival with much less celebratory commotion. An eccentric, surreal comedy in which humans became beasts when they couldn’t find love, it was the first English-language outing for the 45-year-old Greek filmmaker and earned him and his regular writing partner, Efthymis Filippou, an Oscar nomination for Best Original (to say the least!) Screenplay. Their next foray in English—The Killing of a Sacred Deer with Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman and Alicia Silverstone—got them top script honors at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.

His third, The Favourite, is the first film he has helmed that neither he nor Filippou had a hand in writing. It’s the work of a Brit and an Aussie, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, and it tells the now-it-can-be-told story of the British monarch, Queen Anne (1665-1714), who, if she is remembered at all, is remembered for the style of furniture and architecture that emerged during her reign from 1702 to 1714. She was the closest to a legitimate heir to the throne that her Uncle Charles had. When she died, the reign of the House of Stuart ended and the House of Hanover took over.

But there’s more to her story, The Favourite is here to tell you. Following the death of her husband, Prince George of Denmark—after 17 unsuccessful efforts to produce an heir—Queen Anne took up the lesbian life. For this battle royal between cousins—the Queen’s chief lady-in-waiting and a newly arrived but ambitious scullery maid—Lanthimos provided a pair of Oscar winners for her to pick from—the one from The Constant Gardener (Weisz) or the one from La La Land (Emma Stone). Weisz herself characterizes this cinematic mud-wrestle as “a funnier, sex-driven All About Eve.”

The guiltiest bystanders at this catfight over the title role are the ones who waltzed away with top honors from the 2018 Venice Film Festival: Lanthimos landed the Grand Special Jury Prize, and Colman received the Volpi Cup for Best Actress.

At the post-screening press conference for the Fox Searchlight release and in every subsequent interview, Lanthimos has downplayed the lesbianism that drives his film, claiming to have barely noticed it after shooting began, opting instead for “the larger view” of the picture.

“Lesbianism’s not really the big issue here,” he insists. “I never saw the movie like that. For me, it was just about human relationships—how these women in power who, due to their character and behavior and feelings, affected an entire nation—specifically, the lives of millions and the fates of wars that England engaged in.”

There is no absolute proof about Queen Anne’s late-blooming lesbianism, he admits, “just lots of talk about it at court. And, in the writings of the time, there were definite mentions and insinuations about her relationships and peccadilloes.”

Lanthimos’ proudest achievement in this film is the work of the actors. It always is: “I’m always proud for the actors. What they do is amazing. I really admire them.”

And what direction did he give these to shape and sharpen this erotic triangle?

“I never give specific directions. I never try to approach it in an intellectual way. How we work mostly is we try things out—trap the actors, make them talk to each other and feel comfortable with each other. Then, when you have a strong voice from the script and you create the proper atmosphere, everything falls into place. You repeat things, change them around. Everyone knows when it comes out right.

“Ultimately, it’s about choosing the right people in the first place and creating the conditions that will allow them to do work better than even they could imagine.”

Because The Favourite stars Emma Stone, Lanthimos may take a bum casting rap for exploiting the newfound prestige of a freshly minted Oscar winner. The truth is: “We were preparing the film for a couple of years, and La La Land wasn’t even out when we first met and agreed to do this film together.” Also, he’d had preliminary talks with an earlier Oscar winner, Kate Winslet, but that never got beyond talk, and no announcement was made. “It was evident it wouldn’t work—timing-wise as well.”

Lanthimos then gravitated toward the known talents of his two Lobster ladies. “All three of them we tried to portray as complex women. At various times in the story, you find yourself wondering about how many things they are doing they believe in.”

Weisz exudes the film’s sole semblance of real elegant regality (and that, of course, isn’t real) as the Queen’s confidante and mouthpiece who plots wars that will keep her own military husband busy and hammers some court grace into Her Majesty.

“When the movie begins, Rachel is this powerful, domineering woman who seems to have control of everything, but, as it progresses, you spot her weak points. She is also very humane and can be quite sensitive. Throughout the film, you question how much of her love for the Queen is genuine. Does she love her more than her country or does she love her country more? Does she actually know what that reality is?”

Because so much of the film is consumed by the unrelenting war these two young royal underlings wage to win the Queen’s favor and become her Favourite, the object of this fierce affection gradually fades into the scenery—a lumpy, dumpy pillar of majestic passivity. But then again, Colman’s is the picture’s dominant portrayal, hovering heavily over the film, lumbering lamely through her corridors of power. Somehow, attention must be (and is) paid to her.

The 44-year-old Colman, who cleaned up extraordinarily well for the festival launch, is a shuffling visible mess in the movie. “She did put on a little bit of weight, and we helped a bit with makeup” is how Lanthimos explains the transformation. “After going through so many ordeals, we figured she’d look bland and older than her age.”

Having inherited The Crown from Claire Foy, Colman is currently continuing her English reign as the middle-aged Queen Elizabeth in the mid-portion of that miniseries, which could well put her in an Emmy Award race this year as well.

The director claims he never caught Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, but the Queen Anne that he and Colman create is a carbon copy of Disney’s blunt, brutish, bulldozing Queen of Hearts—all piggy deportment, abrupt temper tantrums and strident outbursts. She’s the sort of arrogant ruler who badgers a lowly page to “Look at me!”—and, when he does, she blasts, “How dare you! Close your eyes!”

Seconding that illusion, Queen Anne actually mutters on the dance floor the line that the Queen of Hearts famously and constantly shrieked: “Off with their heads!”

According to Lanthimos, that phrase is the name of an outlandishly bizarre dance move that the choreographer came up with for the film. In addition to a mother lode of minuets, there was some off-the-charts modern dance. “We were inspired by the dances of the period, but then we went off and did our own thing, working a lot with our sensibilities and picking up things from the characters as well as the actors.”

The Favourite is a calculated mix of contemporary and period-piece filmmaking. The “training films” Lanthimos used to prepare for the shoot included Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers and Milos Forman’s Amadeus. “Those are period films that are inspiring. They’re done in a different way—visually and tonally. There were just a few films we looked at by directors who were bold with genres or types of film you expect them to be in a certain way. They broke conventions and made unique films.

“Apart from doing research and using 18th-century elements that interested us to get a visual sense of the period, we felt at the same time it was important to bring a more contemporary texture to the film—details that make it different and feel maybe more modern in certain ways. This started even from the language—from the dialogue we used, trying to imitate what we supposed was the way people spoke back then. With costumes, we used a lot of contemporary fabric but kept the shapes of the period. We used vintage music and contemporary music as well—Handel, Bach, Purcell and Vivaldi versus Olivier Messiaen, Luc Ferrari and Anna Meredith.

“From the beginning, I felt movement would bring a contemporary feel to the whole piece, because I think that we all have this very fixed idea about how we think people moved and sat and spoke in those times—and I just had to go against all that.”