Two English queens reigned over the box office this winter: Queen Anne, played by Olivia Colman in “The Favourite,” and Queen Elizabeth I, played by Margot Robbie in “Mary, Queen of Scots.”
“The Favourite,” directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, is an eccentric, wickedly funny drama-comedy about the struggle for power between Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (played wonderfully by Rachel Weisz) and her cousin, Abigail (played by Emma Stone). The film follows the intrigue during Queen Anne’s reign over Britain in the early 18th century and focuses on the love triangle between Anne, Sarah and Abigail shortly after Abigail came to court.
Colman’s performance as Anne is strikingly vulnerable. She portrays a shy queen, prone to bursts of rage or depression—sometimes completely erratic and unreasonable—but Colman lends a tenderness to the role that makes it nearly impossible to root against her as the court gets swept up in intrigue.
Weisz’s Sarah, at first seeming to be a master manipulator—capable of advising the queen personally and securing a position of power through her social expertise—is the first victim of this intrigue. She is introduced to us immediately as a formidable figure, a woman with strong opinions who has no qualms expressing them, even to the face of the queen. Sarah occasionally wears men’s clothes, often speaks for Anne when the queen is unable to leave her bed and has no problem tearing to shreds the fragile egos of the powerful men around her. Weisz paints her as a matter-of-fact, honest woman, who knows Anne better than anyone else at court and is unafraid of the monarch’s occasional fits of hysteria.
Weisz’s Sarah is also adept at recognizing threats when they appear — especially the looming one that her once disgraced cousin, Emma Stone’s Abigail, poses the moment she steps into court. Unlike Sarah, Abigail knows how to lie, and lie expertly. After witnessing Sarah and Anne in a moment of passion, Abigail realizes exactly how to use this information to her advantage. Stone plays this double-crossing social climber to perfection.
The tug of war between Abigail and Sarah is thrilling to watch, and the naive queen caught in the center of it all only adds to the tragedy of court politics. The men in the film— A hilarious Nicholas Hoult as the flamboyant advisor Harley adds humor, while Joe Alwyn plays a devilishly charming Baron Masham, who falls for Abigail’s womanly wile—seem to orbit entirely around the women at its center, something rare for characters in film, much less a movie about the monarchy.
Its abundantly clear that the key players in “The Favourite” are its trio of leading women, and Weisz, Colman and Stone give incredible performances that anchor this witty, wacky tragi-comedy.
The stories of two more British monarchs unfolded on the big screen this winter in “Mary, Queen of Scots” — the so-called “sister queens” Elizabeth I of England and the titular Mary, cousins who were caught in a bitter contention for the claim to the English throne. Josie Rourke, the director at the helm of the film, made this her cinematic debut, and her experience as the artistic director for the Donmar Theatre in London is visible across every sweeping frame of her visually striking debut.
Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary, and the film follows her life from the moment she steps foot on Scottish soil for the first time after an adolescence spent in France up to the moment of her beheading at the hands of her cousin, Elizabeth. Ronan plays the young monarch as fierce and steadfast in the face of all opposition, even when her pride and stubbornness contribute to her downfall. Ronan’s Mary is a striking woman who commands both her court and the film screen. While occasionally rash, she loves her country, her throne and even the cousin that kills her.
Margot Robbie plays Elizabeth I, and the transformation required for the role is extraordinary (including a prosthetic nose and smallpox scars). Robbie’s Elizabeth is a monarch who is painfully aware of the confines of her throne and prepared to sacrifice both her love—Robert Dudley, also played by a starry-eyed Alwyn—and her fellow queen in order to protect it. Robbie delivers a poignant portrait of a queen trapped by circumstance, pitted against the only other woman who could possibly know what her life is like by petty politics and the decisions of men.
“Mary, Queen of Scots” shines a light on the blatant misogyny that’s pervaded politics throughout human history in a way that “The Favourite” did not. While it centers around the lives of two women in positions that might seem to possess absolute power, “Mary” exposes the men who actively work to usurp them at every turn.
“Mary, Queen of Scots” is a beautiful film, in regards both to its visuals and the story it tells, and Ronan and Robbie deliver performances that might be the best of their already illustrious careers.
Both of these films showcase the strength of women, the impossible decisions that these monarchs were forced to make and sides to these stories that might have otherwise been lost to history (including the fact that many historical figures might not have been as heterosexual as we are lead to believe).
Directors Yanthimos and Rourke have turned out wonderful films with some of the best performances I have seen, and which both provide striking commentary about what it means to be a woman in a sphere dominated by men. Whether you’re a fan of history or not, both films are must-sees.
This is the opinion of Ally Boulas, a senior theatre arts major from Sacramento, California. Tweet comments to @LALoyolan or email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.