By Joseph McAleer
NEW YORK (CNS) — Hollywood and history have always been uneasy partners, the former taking liberties with the latter when it comes to the truth.
The latest example, “The Favourite” (Fox Searchlight), is a costume comedy-drama about a royal love triangle in 18th-century England (hence the British spelling of “favorite”).
Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara play it fast and loose with the known facts about Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), the last of the Stuart monarchs, and two of the women in her life: Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s ambitious cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone).
Assuming the close friendships recorded by history were actually passionate lesbian romances, the writers ramp up the sex, vulgarity and scheming. Predictably, this sordid display of women behaving badly, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”), shocks and offends at every turn, doing a disservice to some lavish production values and, ultimately, three actresses at the top of their game.
Queen Anne, who ruled 1702-14, was a troubled figure, haunted by the 17 children she bore, none of whom survived. In the film she dotes on her pet rabbits, one for each of those children.
Plagued by ill health and multiple neuroses, Anne depended on longtime friend Sarah for companionship and advice. “The Favourite” alleges that Sarah was the real power behind the throne, a veritable puppeteer telling the queen what to say and do in affairs of state, including the conduct of a war with France overseen by Sarah’s husband, the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss).
In the evening, this fetching Machiavelli shares the queen’s bed, soothing the royal demons.
The ridiculousness of “The Favourite” is augmented with the arrival of Abigail, who has fallen on hard times. Abigail’s veneer of innocence and charm obscures a devious streak and an iron will. She’s a woman determined to restore her station in society, whatever the cost. What follows strongly recalls the 1950 classic “All About Eve” — minus any semblance of the restraint then enforced by the production code.
History records that Abigail did indeed become a favorite of the queen. But this account suggests that she did so in an outrageous fashion that clearly will not endear her (or this picture) to moviegoers dedicated to Gospel values.
The film contains strong sexual content, including homosexual activity, full nudity and masturbation, adult themes and occasional profane and rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.