17th Century England, 17th Century Europe, Early Modern England, Early Modern Europe, Emma Stone, Interesting Women, Olivia Colman, Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz, Sarah Churchill, The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos
I am very sorry for the long delay in posting. This semester has been hellishly busy with seemingly endless rounds of exam grading and other work that have left no time or energy to do more enjoyable things like blogging. But I finally have a spare moment, so I figured I should finish up my thoughts about The Favourite (2018, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos). Sadly, I’ve forgotten a number of the things I wanted to say about it, so this post is going to be rather bullet-pointy.
- At the start of the film, Anne (Olivia Colman) is thinking about building a palace for Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and her husband. This is quite problematic. The film must be set after 1711, because Anne’s husband Prince George is dead (the film never touches on the fact that she must be grieving for him). But work started on Blenheim Palace in 1705 and by 1711 it was already quite advanced, although when Anne and Sarah had their final break in 1712 the building was still unfinished and Parliamentary funding for it got shut off until after Anne’s death.
- The same scene presents Anne as thinking that the battle of Blenheim meant that the war with the French was basically over. Sarah has to correct her, and the scene serves to establish that Anne is basically incapable of running the government and that Sarah is functionally Anne’s prime minister. This is simply untrue. Anne was not an intellectually-gifted woman, but she took her duties as sovereign very seriously and was actively involved in the day-to-day affairs of state. Her stubborn insistence on particular courses of action occasionally frustrated her ministers and advisors because they had no way to over-rule her when she put her foot down.
- Similarly, Sarah was not the driving force behind Anne’s government. The film suggests that she basically lived in Anne’s palace and ran the government consistently for a decade. Sarah certainly spent a good deal of time in Anne’s household, but she also spent an enormous amount of time at the Churchill family estates because, among other things, she produced seven children with her husband, all but two of whom survived into their late teen years or beyond. That means that a good deal of Sarah’s time was spent at home tending her family like any good early 18thcentury woman was expected to do. She was also an astute manager of the family estates, which would also have occupied a good deal of her time and attention. And she was also occupied with the construction of Blenheim Palace. One of the reasons we know so much about these two women’s relationship is that they wrote each other letters constantly precisely because they weren’t always together. Anne certainly listened to Sarah’s ideas, but she often disagreed with them.
- One scene shows Sarah basically writing Anne’s parliamentary speech for her. This is certainly untrue. Royal speeches were written by the queen’s ministers. Drafts might go back and forth between the queen and her officials with revisions, insertions, and so on, but Sarah Churchill would have had only a minimal role in that process.
- The phrase “prime minister” gets used several times in the film, which two factions competing for the office. That office wouldn’t exist for about a decade at the time of the film. It evolved during the reign of George I (1715-1727), in part because George was also the ruler of Hanover and therefore did not reside full-time in England, thus making it necessary for him to have an official who exercised a greater degree of governmental oversight that had been traditional in previous reigns. The first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, held three offices that had traditionally been separate—First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Leader of the House of the Commons. This collection of offices made him the most powerful man in government. So the film is being anachronistic here, but only by about a decade or so.
- The last act turns on Abigail’s (Emma Stone) scheming. She drugs Sarah’s tea, so that when Sarah goes riding, she passes out, injures herself, and awakens in a brothel with a horrible scar on her cheek that she spends the rest of the film covering up with a lace veil. That is entirely invented. There is absolutely no basis for it at all.
- While Sarah Churchill was convinced that her fall from grace was caused by Abigail Hill displacing her as Anne’s favorite, there is little evidence that Anne considered Abigail anything more than a servant she liked. There is no evidence that Abigail had any meaningful influence with Anne over political matters or anything else substantive. Sarah’s fall was much more deeply rooted in Sarah’s own overbearing personality, which Anne slowly tired of as time went by, especially given Sarah’s tendency to bully Anne about political decisions that she disagreed with. When Prince George died, Sarah refused to wear mourning clothes, implying that Anne’s dramatic gestures of grief were faked, and Sarah ordered George’s portrait taken out of the queen’s bedroom, which Anne found profoundly cruel. The final precipitant for the break was an incident in which Sarah and Anne were riding to church in a carriage and got into a disagreement. As they reached the church, Sarah told Anne to be quiet lest the crowds hear them quarreling. Anne found Sarah’s shushing of her to be insulting and presumptuous.
- The whole “rabbits as substitute children” thing is made up.
I like The Favourite, but the longer I sit with it, the more I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something misogynistic about it. None of the women in it come across well: Anne is petulant, weak, and stubborn. Sarah is arrogant and presumptuous, although she insists she just loves the queen. Abigail is a liar and schemer who at the end of the film literally tortures a rabbit just because she can. The film punishes all three women with its conclusion: Anne has swapped lovers but she knows Abigail doesn’t really love her. Abigail has gotten power, but the price is sexually servicing a queen who despises and torments her. Sarah has fallen from grace, lost her best friend, been forced to go into exile because of an unjust legal charge, and lost her beauty.
Although in theory these women are struggling about political power, none of the political issues matter to the viewer at all, so it’s really just a three-sided cat-fight in which the weapons are sex, lies, and drugs, all traditionally weapons attributed to women. So while nominally feminist in its approach, the film falls back on traditional ideas about women as schemers, poisoners, and seducers. It’s great that Lanthimos made a film with three female leads, all of whom are richly complex characters. I just wish he could have made a film that actually liked its characters.
Want to Know More?
The Favourite is available on Amazon now.
Although it’s close to 40 years old now, Edward Gregg’s Queen Anne is still probably the essential historical take on her.