Olivia Colman has absolutely no recollection of having studied Queen Anne, the last monarch of the House of Stuart, at school. ‘I really would have sat up and listened,’ she said, with genuine feeling. ‘She’s fascinating!’
She certainly is, at least as portrayed by Colman in director Yorgos Lanthimos’s brilliant and funny Film4 gem The Favourite, which opens here on New Year’s Day, but is already generating palace-loads of Oscar and Bafta buzz.
Anne is part of a love triangle that also includes Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, a childhood friend who gained undue influence over the monarch; and Abigail Masham, a lowly cousin of Churchill’s who blags a job in the court.
Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in director Yorgos Lanthimos’s brilliant and funny Film4 gem The Favourite
Those two women, who were to become rivals for the Queen’s affections, are played, respectively, by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone.
‘It’s supposed to be true that Anne was in love with Sarah Churchill, and they had a relationship,’ Colman told me. ‘There were letters, and there was talk at the time.’
The actress, whose diverse output includes Rev, Broadchurch and The Night Manager on TV and Murder On The Orient Express and The Lobster (an early Lanthimos film) on the big screen, says everything about Anne astounds her. ‘Having 17 children and losing them all at various stages is just horrific. And to carry that pain, that heartache — the mental pain and the physical pain she was in every day — is extraordinary. So, yeah, I would have remembered if we’d done her at school.’
Anne was a hobbling health hazard, suffering from gout and poor eyesight.
‘People would make the most of her illnesses and manipulate her, I suppose to get their own needs met,’ said Colman. ‘She was patronised and spoiled.’
But Anne is not totally weak. Colman invests her with a streak of savviness. ‘Once she gets given the opportunity to speak, she realises: “Hang on a minute. I’m not as rubbish as I thought I was.”’
Lanthimos and the screenwriters take the facts of Anne’s reign and subvert them in the most deliciously wicked way. ‘Feminists and non-feminists will love this story,’ she told me. ‘These are ugly, beautiful women. Proper flawed humans, as all humans are.’
The film opens on New Year’s Day, but is already generating palace-loads of Oscar and Bafta buzz. Pictured: Rachel Weisz and Olivia Coleman, right
Colman wears hardly any make-up in the movie and was happy to put on weight — though less happy to put real beef steaks on her legs to ‘cure’ her gout. ‘Yes, it was quite unpleasant,’ she agreed.
The male characters, on the other hand, got to wear lots of make-up and wigs.
‘Nick Hoult is about 8ft tall in heels and wig,’ Colman said, of the actor who plays Robert Harley, first Earl of Oxford and leader of the Opposition. ‘His make-up was very pretty. No one could look at Nick. We could only look at his forehead, because we couldn’t make eye contact. We were on the verge of giggling, permanently, with him.’
She said she got the blues when filming ended. ‘I loved it so much. Yorgos is genuinely a genius. The company was fun. It’s full of filth and sex . . . it’s got everything,’ she sighed.
Including rabbits. Seventeen of them, which Lanthimos used to represent the children Anne lost. Were they animatronic?
Emma Stone plays Abigail Masham, a lowly cousin of Churchill’s who blags a job in the court
‘Oh no, they were real rabbits,’ Colman said. ‘Real, incontinent rabbits.’
Did that cause any issues?
‘Well, yes. When they were in the bed with you, they just wee-d.’
The rabbits had a high old time at Hatfield House, where The Favourite was filmed.
‘They had lots of lovely space. They would just nod off and fall asleep, and cuddle up in those lovely hutches.
‘And they had a ball when they were out of the hutches. The crew had to use little fences to corral them.
‘They ran round and round the room and the crew had to try to kettle them.’
She and Emma Stone fell for one floppy-eared creature which they dubbed Strawberry, after the rabbit she voices in the BBC/Netflix three-part adaptation of Watership Down.
Speaking of Netflix, Colman’s main day job now is to portray our present Queen, Elizabeth II, in the third and fourth series of The Crown, taking over the pomp and circumstance from Claire Foy.
There are no comparisons between the two, she said, ‘apart from the “queen” in the title of their names…that’s where the similarities end’.