Last week I got to see The Favourite (2018, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos), a movie about the cinematically-neglected Queen Anne of England (r.1702-1714). It’s a lovely film that focuses on Anne’s relationship with two women, Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill, and there’s a good deal to say about it, so I’m going to give it two or three posts.
“Spoiler” Alert: Since the film is still in the theaters, you may wish to see the film before you read this review, since I do discuss key details of the film. However, if you know anything about Anne and Sarah Churchill, there’s not really much to spoil. There are no unexpected plot twists, so you can probably just keep reading.
At the start of the film in 1708, Anne (Olivia Colman) is well into her reign as queen, and Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) is her closest friend. Churchill is also the Keeper of the Privy Purse, meaning that she oversees the accounts of the royal household, and Groom of the Stole, meaning that she supervises the queen’s apartments. Anne is in poor health, using a wheelchair to get around, and she is fussy, sullen, lacking in self-confidence, and occasionally explosively demanding, which the film suggests is the consequence having lost 17 children (she keeps rabbits in her bedroom as substitute children). Sarah is self-assured to the point of arrogance, razor-smart, and adapt at managing the queen’s moods. She is Anne’s chief political advisor as well as her closest friend, and her decades of familiarity with Anne have trained her to be startling blunt with the queen. At one point she says “I will always tell you the truth. That’s what love is.” She is also Anne’s secret lover.
Early on in the film, Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at court. She is the daughter of a minor aristocrat who has fallen on hard times, and so she has been sent to court in the hopes that her kinship with Anne will secure her position in the royal household. Sarah appoints her to the kitchen, but Abigail is either plucky or scheming (Stone does a good job of making it unclear which is the case at the start) and manages to attract Anne’s attention by giving her an herbal remedy that improves her gout. She recognizes Anne’s profound maternal sadness and allows her to express it in a way that Sarah will not. As Abigail rises in the queen’s favor, Sarah becomes jealous, worrying about her place in Anne’s affections, and the result is that Abigail and Sarah become locked in a struggle to see which will be Anne’s bed companion and confidante. In the end, Abigail drugs Sarah’s tea just before Sarah rides angrily from court; the result is that Sarah falls unconscious during her ride and eventually awakens, injured and stuck in a brothel. This gives Abigail the opening she needs to complete her ascendancy. By the time Sarah returns to court, she has been replaced and is forced to leave court. So basically, it’s All About Eve if Margo Channing and Eve Harrington were both trying to sleep with the same woman.
The Favourite is a fun movie. It has a surprising sense of humor for a period drama; it entirely avoids the danger that many costume dramas fall into of being so serious that they become airless. All three of the leads do an excellent job bringing their characters to life as believable people. The film’s depiction of the relationship between these three women is well-handled (although the drugged tea is a bit over the top).
What makes this so much more than just a cinematic cat-fight is that Anne and Sarah are genuinely at the center of their political world; Sarah is married to the duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), the queen’s key general in the war with France and a leading member of the Whig party. As Sarah focuses her attention on the war, the leading Tory, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) works to use Abigail as a spy against Sarah. So this isn’t just a film about three women in a complicated relationship. It’s also a film about three women engaging in political maneuvering around each other.
(And if you want a very deep look at the costumes, Frock Flicks has an extensive look at the what the costume designer had to say.)
Anne is one of the more obscure English monarchs, at least in the public consciousness. She is the last of the Stuart dynasty, the Scottish dynasty that inherited the throne after the death of Elizabeth I (who to judge from the number of movies about her, must have been the most important British ruler ever). Her father, James II, made the mistake of being the first openly Catholic ruler since Mary I at a time when the English population was pretty hostile to Catholics. In 1688, after three years on the throne, Parliamentary leaders invited the leader of the Netherlands, William of Orange, to come help them out. The result was the Glorious Revolution, a bloodless coup in which James fled the country, Parliament decided that he had actually abdicated, and James’ Protestant daughter Mary was put on the throne jointly with her husband, the afore-mentioned William. William and Mary (you’ve heard of their college, right?) had no children, so it was clear when they stepped up to the throne that Anne was their likely heir.
This period saw the emergence of the first two political parties in English history, the Whigs and the Tories. To simplify some pretty complicated stuff, the Tories were the party of royal authority and High Church Anglicanism. They favored the power of the monarch over the power of Parliament, but they were also the champions of Anglican supremacy, meaning that they felt that no one except committed Anglicans should be allowed to hold public office. (So it was kind of problem for them when James II was trying to use royal authority to except Catholics from the laws barring Catholics from public office.) They were also insistent that the line of succession had to strictly follow the rules of inheritance, which they saw as expressing the will of God. That’s why they were willing to tolerate a Catholic monarch in the first place.
The Whigs, in contrast, favored Parliamentary authority and wanted to limit the monarch’s ability to function independently of Parliament. They were also willing to allow non-Anglican Protestants into office, but generally distrusted Catholics. The Whigs felt that Parliament should have the power to dictate the line of succession, skipping heirs who were Catholic, for example.
Both factions worked together during the Glorious Revolution because both sides saw James as a threat (the Tories thought he was a threat to Anglicanism, while the Whigs thought he was a threat to Parliament. Again, I’m simplifying a complex story.) So they agreed to depose James while pretending he had actually abdicated by fleeing the country. They revised the relationship between monarch and Parliament to make the monarch dependent on Parliament in a variety of ways, thus essentially securing the dominance of Parliament and helping lay the foundations for modern democracy. The Tories weren’t fond of William because he wasn’t Anglican, whereas they quite liked his sister-in-law Anne because she was an absolute committed Anglican. They rallied around her as the focus of opposition to William (setting a trend that was to last for a century, in which the party out of power couched their opposition in terms of support for the heir).
When William died in 1702, Anne succeeded with no challenge whatsoever (her sister had already been dead since 1694). She immediately found herself caught between the Tories and Whigs, both of whom essentially argued that they had to have complete control of the major offices of state and that the other side couldn’t be trusted. The Tories argued that the Whigs didn’t support the monarchy, and the Whigs argued that the Tories were secretly plotting to put James’ Catholic son on the throne. Anne saw her role as sitting above the two factions (the very idea of political parties was barely a quarter-century old, so it makes sense that she didn’t see either side as completely legitimate) and tried to steer a path between them.
In particular, Anne was, as mentioned, a High Church Anglican and was more naturally inclined toward the Tory political philosophy. But her best friend Sarah Churchill and Sarah’s husband John, the duke of Marlborough, were both solid Whigs. This created a situation where Anne was constantly pressured by Sarah to favor the Whigs. To make things more complicated, England was involved in a war with France for virtually the entire duration of her reign, and Marlborough was her indispensable general. Anne could not afford to politically alienate Marlborough.
Our best source of insight into Anne as a person are her correspondence with Sarah, her best friend for most of her life. The two women wrote each other constantly and discussed not only their personal feelings but also all the political issues of the moment. However, for some reason, Sarah was very insistent that the people she wrote letters to should burn those letters after reading them, so for the most part we only have Anne’s side of the correspondence. Often that gives us a sense of what Sarah had written, but it’s still a rather one-sided view of their relationship (although in a few cases, we do have Sarah’s side of the correspondence).
Another extremely important source of information is Sarah’s memoirs. She published her first version of them in 1730, 16 years after Anne’s death, and a second version, essentially a heavily-revised second draft, in 1742. Because she was so central to the politics of the era, her take on the personalities and events of Anne’s reign has proven extremely influential, but her account is heavily colored by the gradual falling out that she and Anne had as Anne’s reign progressed. Sarah was a smart, lively, charming woman, but she also had a rather inflated sense of her own ability to assess the facts, a fierce temper, and, in the words of one historian, “an almost pathological inability to admit the validity of anyone else’s point of view.” Having fallen out with Anne, Sarah depicted Anne as a dull-witted, foolish woman completely at the mercy of those around her. That view of Anne shaped the way people viewed the queen for more than 2 centuries. When Sarah’s famous descendant Winston Churchill decided to write a massive four-volume history of John Churchill’s life, he relied quite heavily on Sarah’s memoirs. (Incidentally, Sarah is also an ancestor of Lady Diana Spencer, the famous and ill-fated Princess Diana.)
However, when professional historian Edward Gregg sat down to write a biography of Anne in the late 1970s, he came to a very different conclusion. He found Anne to be a shy, quiet woman, but one who quickly matured into a confident politician once she became queen. Rather than being manipulated by those in her court, she skillfully navigated their conflicting demands in pursuit of policies that rose above faction, although she was not always successful in achieving those goals. In Gregg’s view, her chief weakness was not being easily manipulated but quite the opposite; she was a profoundly stubborn woman who had trouble recognizing the need to make concessions.
Within a few years of becoming queen, Anne had developed a very different take on the political issues of the day than Sarah’s, and Sarah’s harsh judgment of her derives to a large extent from her inability to accept that Anne could have formed her own opinions that disagreed with Sarah’s. Anne also tired of Sarah’s presumptuous bullying of her and constant demanding that she appoint Sarah’s preferred candidates to various offices, so that her eventual estrangement from the duchess of Marlborough was largely Sarah’s own fault. Given the remarkable favoritism Anne showed toward the Marlboroughs early in the reign, Sarah generally comes off in Gregg’s version of events as grasping and overly entitled.
Gregg’s view of Anne has drastically altered scholars’ take on her and her reign. As Gregg points out, it was in Anne’s reign that England laid the foundations for the outsized role England was to have in 18thand 19thcentury international events. It was during Anne’s reign that England and Scotland were brought together into the United Kingdom, a far from foregone conclusion, given that after Anne’s death, Scotland could easily have wound up with Anne’s Catholic half-brother on the throne while the English wound up with her distant Protestant cousin George I. And Gregg sees Anne as playing an important role in those developments.
Why does this matter? The first draft of The Favourite was written by Deborah Davis, who has a bachelor’s degree in history (I think—she says she “studied history at university” and is described as an historian, but I can’t find anything more specific about her education). She found the story of Anne’s complicated relationship with Sarah interesting and did a good deal of research into the women as she wrote it. In interviews, she mentions three sources that she relied on: the surviving correspondence, Sarah’s memoirs, and Churchill’s biography of John Churchill. So the film’s take on who Anne and Sarah were as people and how they related is to a very considerable extent Sarah’s take on who they were. That means that the film’s version of things is rooted in a now old-fashioned take on Anne’s reign.
In the film, Sarah is certainly imperious toward Anne, but is driven much more by her love of Anne than by her inability to tolerate disagreements. Anne is emotionally erratic and in need of someone who will be more sympathetic to her than Sarah is willing to be, and Abigail is to some extent a schemer who steps into that hole and works to alienate Sarah from Anne. In reality, Sarah required no outside help to alienate Anne.
In my next post, I’ll dig into the film’s treatment of the historical facts.
Want to Know More?
The Favourite is still playing in theaters and so isn’t available on Amazon yet.
Although it’s close to 40 years old now, Edward Gregg’s Queen Anne is still probably the essential historical take on her.
If you’re curious about Winston Churchill’s take on the era, Marlborough: His Life and Times is available on Kindle quite cheaply. Churchill was a gifted writer and a rare example of a politician who truly appreciated history, but he wasn’t exactly a great historian.