During Christmas holidays, I try to see a bunch of movies all in the same day, preferably during the hours I would normally be working. This year, I managed a double-bill on Boxing Day, a fittingly British-origin holiday on which to see The Favourite and Mary Queen of Scots.
The Favourite is set in the early 1700s and Mary Queen of Scots is set in the mid-1500s, but I saw them out of chronological order due to screening times. Both movies are about the same country—heck, they’re about the same family: Mary’s son James would be the first Stuart monarch of England, a royal lineage that ends with Mary’s great-great-granddaughter, Anne, the queen featured in The Favourite. Interestingly, Mary Queen of Scots is about Mary’s attempt to unify Scotland and England under her rule, while The Favourite is about the queen under whose reign Scotland and England were unified: Anne was Queen of England from 1702 to 1707 and Queen of Britain from 1707 to 1714.
However, these movies may as well been set on different planets. Mary Queen of Scots is about a long political game, with personal “B” stories. In contrast, the focus in The Favourite is on the personal ambitions of the three lead characters, Queen Anne (played by Olivia Colman), the Lady Marlborough, Sarah Churchill (played by Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s cousin, an aristocrat who has fallen upon hard times, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), with historical intrigue as a backdrop.
The stakes in Mary Queen of Scots are writ large: the fate of two nations, the life of Queen Mary, the legacy of Queen Elizabeth. The question of how to wind down the war with France underscores The Favourite, but the focus is on smaller stakes: the comfort of Queen Anne, the policies of Lady Marlborough, the career of Abigail Hill. And yet, it was The Favourite that had me on the edge of my seat. Every line spoken, every look given, upped the ante. Perhaps the most tense moment I experienced in cinema this year was during a scene in which Sarah and Abigail engage in a silent, competitive game of skeet shooting. Adding to the tension was the non-diagetic sound of a taut violin string being plucked.
Both films took liberties with history, but The Favourite is up front about it, with its use of modern idiom and costuming (design legend Sandy Powell used a restricted, black-and-white colour palette and laser-cut vinyl to give the female leads’ characters an iconic look in the Scott McCloud sense). Smoothing away these hallmarks of traditional historical-fiction movies allowed the film, and the audience, to focus on the characters and dialogue, much as stage productions do. If you’ve ever seen a show like Hamilton, you will notice iconic costumes and a mostly static set with enough stage dressing to hint at the era in which the show is set. The hip-hop soundtrack, like the contemporary language used in The Favourite (which was written by written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) brings the story to the present day: the concerns seem immediate because they’re presented in a language that you feel you can engage with. Director Yorgos Lanthimos also sets the camera low, uses a fish-eye lens, and deep-shadow lighting, giving the movie the feel of a film noir in which we are looking through peepholes to try to piece together a story of intrigue. (Indeed, Abigail is an interloper in the great tradition of film noir in which a stranger from the past upsets an already precarious apple-cart.)
In contrast, Mary Queen of Scots, looks more historical, with accurate-looking sets and costumes (but with the twist of colour-blind casting). However, the movie (written by Beau Wilmon of Netflix House of Cards fame), saddles its cast with speeches rather than dialogue. Although Saoirse Ronan as Mary is given the lion’s share of the film’s lines, she is not given much characterization. As a result, the film feels more like an overly long, unfunny episode of Drunk History. (DH dialogue I imagine would go with this movie [includes mild spoilers]: “Randomly, Lord Darnley is gay! And these maids don’t age in the 19 years that Mary is in jail because we forgot about them!”) The characterization of Queen Elizabeth is even more problematic. First, I have to say that the prosthetic nose they gave Margot Robbie was extremely distracting. The more serious complaint is that Elizabeth gives a mauldin speech in the end that is a throwback to the old career-or-motherhood saw. Sure, she’s England’s longest-serving monarch, but she’s sad that she isn’t a mother! The textual epilogue notes that Mary’s child, James, went on to become king of both Scotland and England, while Elizabeth had a long reign, but no children. So this film about two powerful women reduces them to their reproductive functions. (In The Favourite, Queen Anne’s 17 miscarriages is significant to Anne’s characterization, but she is not defined by her marital or motherhood status.)
I mentioned how The Favourite managed used some theatre-inspired storytelling. Mary Queen of Scots was directed by a theatre director, Josie Rourke, but some things that might have worked on the stage did not work on screen. The most egregious example takes place during a scene in which Mary and Elizabeth meet for the first time (they never did meet in real life). It takes place in a cabin in which reams of material are draped. They follow each other’s shadows, like doing a dance of the veils, until Mary gets impatient and rips down the drapes to see that Elizabeth is *gasp!* ugly. Seriously! The moment is both corny and sexist.
For me, the battle royale between these two films was a rout. Mary Queen of Scots was a dud. The Favourite was my favourite.
I am so enamoured of the purposefully anachronistic costumes in The Favourite! Vulture interviewed Sandy Powell, who bought a chenielle bed spread from eBay to make Queen Anne’s robe, and denim from thrift shops to make the kitchen staff’s uniforms.
Powell also spoke to Vogue magazine about her inspirations for the costumes and about the director’s decision to eschew make-up and hairspray for the female leads.
And here’s a Vulture article to read after you’ve seen the film (do read the comment from ettada). I would add that in the end, Abigail realizes that she is doing the same kind of work that she did at the beginning of her career to survive.