LONDON—She seems to be a basket case of a British Queen, a corpulent woman borne around in a sedan chair, her girth concealed under the ballooning garments of her rank, often encumbered by a long train. By court protocol, lesser mortals may not look at her.
This is Queen Anne, who took her nation into the 18th century as Scotland joined England in union and it became Great Britain. Anne is the most underrated of British monarchs. If history were fair, her legacy should rank with that of the woman who by far outshines her, Elizabeth I.
You can see why this misjudgment came about in The Favourite, the new movie in which Olivia Colman leaps to international stardom as Anne—but this is not the queen in full, just the whackiest side of her.
Like Anne, Colman has been underrated for a long time. Now, given an exemplary script and appreciative director, she has delivered one of the most bizarre royal performances yet on screen.
Colman conveys more with her facial muscles than most actors can manage with their body. At times, in close-up, the face undergoes terrifying, wordless mood changes. Belligerence waxes into tenderness. A scowl dissolves into a deep inner fear. A middle-aged woman, stricken with infirmities that can’t be treated, has to handle pain and rule with iron an unruly nation.
Colman is no Hollywood beauty but, like the older Bette Davis, she is a consummate artist who can change your idea of what beauty really is. As queen, she lets her chin wiggle as a warning of impending storm, one of a number of tics that signal displeasure. She lies sprawled on a divan like a beached whale, while her swollen legs are treated for gout.
She is unhealthily pale. The men in this court wear more makeup than she does: rouged cheeks, mascara, eyeliners to go with the silk wrappings of the 18th-century aristocratic dandy, replete with cod pieces and tight leggings to show off shapely calves. Gender mutations are frequent and fluid.
What kind of a country is this?
The line where English eccentricity tips into madness is seldom steady. England has always bred and been tolerant of eccentricity, while other nations have tended to use it as a label to discourage subversive originality. From Newton to Churchill, quirks of character often accompanied genius. And there is a Churchill in this story, and she is in no way conventional.
Sarah Churchill was the wife of John Churchill, elevated to the rank of Duke of Marlborough by Anne in gratitude for his great military conquests, and in this movie she is one part of a plot-driving central lesbian triangle, together with the queen and Abigail Masham, a lady of the court who emerges as a rival to Sarah for the queen’s affections. The movie takes great liberties with the historical record in portraying the way that this vicious fight led eventually to Sarah, Lady Marlborough, being rejected from the royal court in favor of Abigail.
Much of the movie’s power (and daring) lies in the coarseness of these women’s emotions. Explicit carnal embraces are partnered with four-letter words—the same profanities are also used as pejoratives when fired by them at men. Lady Marlborough, for example, addresses a letter to the queen “Dear C**t.” Abigail boasts of the work of her tongue inside the queen. It’s that kind of intimacy.
It would have been much too much of a burden for the movie to track every one of the threads in the power games of Anne’s court and government. The title gives a clue. Scavenging for power involved becoming a favorite of somebody, and crawling up the oily pole. The movie does not attempt to develop a potentially timely theme: how women must use the kinds of power available to them when surrounded by cabals of ruthless men.
In theory, Anne still enjoyed absolute power. She could dismiss her ministers, banish dissidents, decide whether to wage war or sue for peace. But by the time she had the crown, a stable two-party system existed, with the Tories and the Whigs. Even an absolute monarch had to be careful. If the public got a whiff of any reversion to Tudor-style authoritarianism, there was a danger of revolution. In most cases Anne had an instinctive sense of how far she could go.
Whether through pillow talk or direct impertinence, Lady Marlborough was a strong hand in setting those limits. Her influence was greater than that of any politician or courtier—and for that reason she was much resented and gathered important enemies.
Rachel Weisz is a treasure in this role. She is wardrobed like a dragoon, androgynous, strutting, as martial as her husband the general and lethal with a rifle as she slaughters pigeons with an ease that no man can better. Unwarily, she schools Abigail into becoming as good a shot as she.
Everybody knows Lady Marlborough has the queen’s ear—and the better informed know that she has a lot more access than that. Until Abigail arrives, she uses it to generally benign effect. The queen submits willingly without losing any of the steely authority she asserts outside the bedchamber.
It’s clear that the actors had great fun making this movie. Emma Stone—an unlikely candidate for a period English romp—is exultant as Abigail, keeping a careful balance between a calculating slut and a born political manipulator. She performs with gusto probably the most outrageous wedding-night scene ever filmed.
The movie is a wonderful evocation of period but it is a narrow and misleading viewpoint into what was, in reality, a hugely transformative time. With the Act of Union, absorbing Scotland into the nation, Anne had to make a radical new scale of state work. She presided over military successes in Europe that provided the stability needed to develop the country’s mercantile ambitions, which would eventually produce the world’s greatest empire. Despite her afflictions she was determined to be politically engaged in running the country and attended more cabinet meetings than any monarch before or since.
At the same time, and equally consequential, London became a metropolis with a raw, bawdy energy that makes the Swinging London of the 1960s look like a Sunday School outing.
In the area that is now Covent Garden an atmosphere of unlicensed cultural and physical freedom coursed through the streets and alleys, the opera house, the theaters, the art galleries, the coffee houses and, not least, the brothels like an endless tide of pleasure.
It was a rare moment of civil freedoms, a richly productive combustion of high manners and low morals. The wealthy could build exquisite palaces while at the same time a shrewd merchant class appeared to craft and supply the luxury goods and clothes in demand by the royal family and the aristocracy who were building town houses along Piccadilly.
For the first time London was a world center of fashion and fads. And then there was the river and the parks. The Thames became as much a place of carnivals as the streets, and the nights were full of open-air concerts featuring the music of Handel, the German composer imported and subsidized by the queen herself.
Anne’s name is given to a particularly refined era of English furniture design and architecture, a time when the taste of the monarch was widely followed by the aristocracy.
The sureness of that taste is borne out in the prices collectors will pay today to sit in Queen Anne chairs or live in Queen Anne houses. That should be her last laugh. The Whig and Tory political parties that caused her much annoyance in the 18th century are long gone, but her aesthetic gifts still give pleasure. Pre-revolutionary America was also shaped by the Queen Anne style—mansions were built according to the original designs and the colonists imported craftsmen to reproduce English furniture.
The Favourite won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice for the director, Yorgos Lanthimos, and Colman won the Volpe Cup for best actress. Playing British queens has become an art in its own right—and a ticket to stardom. Colman is sharing this lift with Claire Foy, who made the role of Elizabeth II in The Crown a personal triumph.
Colman and Foy both had strong credentials in movies and TV before this, but success of a different magnitude came when they entered the royal family. Foy first got attention as Anne Boleyn, the doomed wife of Henry VIII in the BBC production of Wolf Hall. Now, after her success in The Crown she has won raves as Neil Armstrong’s wife in First Man.
Colman was first introduced to American audiences in the TV series Broadchurch, where she played a somewhat dowdy detective. She got more notice as a British spymaster in the TV adaptation of John LeCarre’s The Night Manager, for which she won a TV Golden Globe as best supporting actress. Both roles called for tightly controlled, low-key performances
The Favourite is such a revelation because Colman is finally allowed to discard that skin of a woman holding in her emotions. She is simultaneously regal and sad, crazy and coldly focused, and ultimately alone in maintaining the essential myth of absolute power.
That’s a trick that Colman will continue to face. She replaces Foy as the older Queen Elizabeth in the next series of The Crown. Once in that family, it seems there is no escape.
The Favourite is released in the U.S. on Nov. 23.