Favourite, The: Making of Lantimos Ambitious Period Drama, Starring Oscar Winners Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman

Directed by the visionary Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, based on a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite stars Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn and Mark Gatiss.  The eagerly awaited film, released by Fox Serachlight, world premieres in competition at the 2018 Venice Film Fest. 

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. There are so many ongoing similarities in human behavior, societies and power–Yorgos Lanthimos

The setting for The Favourite is inspired by real history, from the veiled world of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), the last (and historically most ignored) of the Stuart line of Britain’s rulers. Though she was infamously gouty, shy and disregarded, Queen Anne nevertheless reigned as Great Britain became a global power.

Palace Intrigue

Benefiting from Lnatimos’ original conception, it is through Anne’s intricate relations with two other women of cunning and aspiration—her life-long intimate friend and political advisor Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s penniless cousin turned social-climbing chambermaid Abigail (Emma Stone) –that the film dissects a whirlpool of manipulations and emotions, the core definition of the e the phrase “palace intrigue.”

Lanthimos’ The Favourite is the director’s first period film, set against the outrageously aristocratic tableau of 18th Century royals.  It’ a darkly satirical story about three commanding women jockeying with raw abandon for love, favor and power that in many way actually feels very contemporary.

Like all of the Greek director’s pictures, The Favourite creates its own alive and unique universe, with Lanthimos playing freely with the external events of the day that serviced and motivated the inner lives and personal politics of his characters.

Speculations aside, no one truly knows what really went on verbally, physically or emotionally behind the closed doors of Queen Anne’s court, let alone in her bed.

The sprawling history 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, all activities detached from the realities of the outside world.

Comic Tragedy that’s Ultimately Love Story

On some level it’s a bedroom farce with global consequences, and screenwriter Tony McNamara worked closely with Lanthimos from an original screenplay by Deborah Davis.  McNamara thinks 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 film began with the already mystery-laden reign of the real Queen Anne.  He elaborates: “What interested me most were these three characters, their power, their fragile relationships and how the behavior 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,”

Queen Anne is England’s least known ruler, not least of all because she left no heirs, 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 new era of acrimonious national division, with Whigs and Tories taking sides as partisans and bitterly battling each other for influence, leading to the birth of a young two-party political system.

Fragile Queen Susceptible to Manipulation

Anne was not an obvious match as Queen and ruler for the world of rapidly enlarging personal and political agendas in which she moved. 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 led to Anne being beset upon by various people, who competed to gain influence by finding ways to gain her trust–and her heart.

Enigmatic Director with Subliminal Magic

The singularity of Lanthimos’ vision faced the challenge of how to 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 filmmaker 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.”

Triumvirate of Female power

The two women who made their way into Anne’s inner sanctum created a triumvirate of female power-players, which was uncommon for any time period, let alone in the era of pre-Enlightenment.

The first was Lady Sarah Churchill, the 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) her lover.

The second was Abigail Masham, who was Anne’s cousin by birth but reduced to destitution by family bankruptcy, joining the royal household as 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 of Lady Sarah.

Brilliant Women Behaving Badly

But aside from being a speculative historical account, the story bears a psychological and sensual resonance that have escaped  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.  However, the core story of three women, each struggling to survive by betraying the others, has endured.”

Davis 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.” 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, “there were interesting snippets to be found elsewhere where Abigail emerges as a ruthless chambermaid, and her trajectory clearly reveals her ambition.”

Era When Women Had Real Power

The experience of researching this era in English Royalty led Davis to 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.”

In 2009, producer Ed Guiney of Element Pictures 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, “Dogtooth was an extraordinary exploration of the nature of a family.  It showed Yorgos’ ability to explore different facets of our lives–family, love, 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.”

Brief Synopsis

In early 18th century, England is at war with the French, but, nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving. A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. When Sarah takes Abigail under her wing, Abigail sees chance to return to her aristocratic roots.  As the politics of war become 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 a woman, a man, or politics stand in her way.

Credits:

Fox Searchlight Pictures, Film4 and Waypoint Entertainment present, an Element Pictures-Scarlet Films production.

The producers are Ceci Dempsey of Scarlet Films, Ed Guiney of Element Pictures, along with Yorgos Lanthimos and Lee Magiday.

Executive Producers are Andrew Lowe for Element Pictures, Daniel Battsek and Rose Garnett for Film4, Ken Kao and Josh Rosenbaum for Waypoint Entertainment, Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis.

Director of photography: Robbie Ryan.

Costume designer: Sandy Powell

Production designer: Fiona Crombie.

Editor: Yorgos Mavropsaridis.

Hair and makeup designer: Nadia Stacey.

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