In her own way, Emma Stone looks at The Favourite as a love story. A dark and twisted one where affairs of state and the affairs of the state’s bed mingle when a British Queen pits her two favorite courtiers against each other. Yet a pseudo-romance built on gallows humor it remains. And it’s the heart of this matter, even with its sardonic debauchery, that makes Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest such a hard-to-categorize delight.
“I would consider it a love story of sorts,” Stone says with the hint of a wry smile. “To what extent that love is from a completely pure place and not for personal gain, there are shades of gray there, I think.” The Oscar winning performer is referring specifically to her own character, Abigail Hill. For despite being the daughter of a disgraced and destitute family, Abigail is able to prey on the sympathies of her cousin Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) to gain employment as a maid in Queen Anne’s service. But the more time she spends with the Queen (a grand Olivia Colman), the clearer it is that she might displace Sarah as the Queen’s preferred confidant for political intrigues… and other intimacies.
It’s a meteoric rise for Stone’s character, who travels from poverty to extravagance, but not necessarily one made from the more traditional genre mold of heroic determination.
“I don’t know if I’d consider Abigail a heroine,” Stone laughs. “She’s using any means necessary to survive. I think she’s a heroine unto herself for sure, but in the grander context, I don’t know. She’s no Joan of Arc.” Still, the star also acknowledges one of the most fascinating virtues of The Favourite is that she isn’t necessarily a villainess either, which her role could have easily been coded as in the past. “Near the end, some pretty irredeemable things, I think, start to occur. But you’re right, she’s a survivor.”
The fact Abigail can be viewed through so many prisms, as with her verbal sparring matches against Weisz and Colman, is one of the many reasons Stone was thrilled about when she first read Tony McNamara’s screenplay. Often actresses are forced to compete for a single nuanced role in a film—and sometimes fewer still when the subject matter is one of political intrigue. In The Favourite, however, a barbed narrative weaves the story of three women, protagonists and antagonists all, in a vision that is profoundly empathetic—yet still savors their capriciousness.
Says Stone, “It’s pretty rare to find a film that has three female roles that are this sensational… I mean that’s the thing, the stakes are so high for these women, the country hangs in the balance. So it’s not like it’s a popularity contest of being the favorite. It’s like the survival of millions depends on that.”
It’s also for perhaps that reason the historical narrative upon which the film is based is often overlooked, whether in the monarchy-obsessed United States or in the actual island-nation where a queen still resides. While the proclivities of England’s Henry VIII have become the subject of countless biographies and Hollywood movies, the successes and losses of Queen Anne, a woman who presided over victory in the War of the Spanish Succession, have largely been forgotten.
“I’m very fascinated by monarchy and this time period is incredible; this is before our country was even founded,” Stone says. “[But] I knew nothing about Queen Anne before making this. I could not believe so much of it was accurate, that she had lost 17 children, that she… struggled an extreme amount and went through a lot, and clearly needed to have a great deal of strength to move forward through all of that.” The actor, of course, was not the exception. “I felt a little bit better, because it seemed like most of the British people in the cast and crew didn’t know about Queen Anne either. I was like, ‘You must have learned about her in school.’ And no one remembered learning about Queen Anne.”
The Favourite is poised to correct that oversight with an ever so acerbic pen, and maybe just a little bit of love.
This article was first published on Nov. 19, 2018.