The Favourite, released in 2019, has by now garnered multiple BAFTA awards and an Oscar. Yet, its relevance to us today is not only because of its critical acclaim but also its impact on the historical community. It throws out everything we know about the traditional ‘period piece’ and instead reinvents historic fiction through a farcical comedic spirit. By taking on this comedic undertone, the film moves away from the polite myth of eighteenth-century society usually depicted on the big screen. However, as a result, there are definite ahistorical moments throughout the film. These inaccuracies push us to think about how raw historical material can be used to contemplate psychological dynamics of love, power, and class in past society, without necessarily capturing full, non-fictional historical accuracy. Its clever storytelling and wry observations about contemporary eighteenth-century society also bring forth an aspect of revisionist gender history which in and of itself contributes massively to the debate on Queen Anne’s reign, as well as the wider history of sexuality and love between women. The Favourite is certainly a film for the ages, capturing both the minds of historians and movie-lovers alike.
The Favourite is set during Queen Anne’s court in early eighteenth-century England, where a powerful love triangle between chambermaid Abigail Hill, confidante Lady Sarah Churchill, and Queen Anne herself unravels. Soon enough, a brutal battle to become the favourite companion and lover of Queen Anne ensues. The film is laced with political, social, and gendered commentary, both fabricated and not; where the Whigs fight the Tories in parliament, where men wear extravagant wigs and watch duck racing indoors, and where women play with guns and engage in sexual freedoms. Although not always historically accurate, historian Emma Donoghue has said of the film: “They didn’t just make things up randomly. They made things up that represented the psychological truth of the situation.” The colourful imagery, playful commentary, and the main plot centred around power and love accurately represents the real tensions of the rivalry between Abigail Hill and Lady Sarah over the Queen’s favour and the centrality of women in the Queen’s life.
By far the gendered dynamics in this film are what strike historians the most. Although the feud between the two women did exist in real life, it was one borne out of political differences, not a battle over the Queen’s heart. While Abigail Hill was aligned with the Tories, Lady Sarah turned towards the Whigs, which was something the Queen saw as disloyalty. Although issues of these political dimensions are covered in the film, they are side-tracked for the main spectacle: the love triangle. Although you may consider this love affair to be completely fabricated, the idea for the film did grow out of contemporary rumours which were fuelled by jealousy and rivalry over control of the Queen. In 1707, with the help of Whig politician Arthur Mainwaring, Lady Sarah circulated a risqué propogandist poem about Queen Anne, which suggested that there was a lesbian relationship between the Queen and her chambermaid Abigail Hill:
“When as Queen Anne of great renown
Great Britain’s sceptre swayed
Beside the Church she dearly loved
A dirty chambermaid
O Abigail that was her name.”
Lady Sarah, as in the film too, also threatened to blackmail the Queen and expose her letters between Abigail and herself. Historians have contemplated the meanings of these letters and discussed the possibility of a sapphic relationship in court:
“I can’t go to bed without seeing you […] if you knew in what condition you have made me, I am sure you would pity.”
However, historian Anne Somerset, author of Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion has rejected the hypothesis that there was ever a love triangle or romantic relationships between the women. It should be noted that deeply affectionate language between friends was common for the time period, and that political slander and rumour centred on sexuality was a form of propaganda commonly written and spread. Logistically, too, Queen Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark, was alive until 1708 and was written out of the film, perhaps because he would complicate the plot of a sexual love triangle.
As well as this reinterpretation of historical reality, director Yorgos Lanthimos and costume designer Sandy Powell wished to portray the men in the film as debased and chauvinistic. Here, the main function of male characters was to search for sex and to be dictated by a carnivorous lust. While we see the women in the film adorned in raw and ‘natural’ makeup for most of the film, the men on the other hand are constantly powdered in ridiculous wigs, outfits, and makeup, resembling “ridiculous looking peacocks” as Powell has stated. So why did the director decide to centre this film around a revisionist history of sexuality? Lanthimos has said this of the portrayal of gender in the film:
“What we tried to do was portray them as human beings; because of the prevalent male gaze in cinema, women are portrayed as housewives, girlfriends, lovers; our small contribution is we’re just trying to show them as complex and wonderful and horrific as they are, like other human beings.”
As such, the issues of gender are filtered through a modern-day historicised lens. Yet, in an interesting way, whether intentional or not, Lanthimos also captures the historic debate focused on the place of women in politics, sexuality, and their individual agency in often male-centred histories. The film, regarding its theme of sexuality and gender, is not and never was intended to be an accurate portrayal of Queen Anne’s court or sexual life. But rather, it acts as a commentary on historic themes of power, women, and the often-absurd lives of the elite.
The sexual undertones of the film can also be interpreted as a discussion on the importance of power within and outside of relationships. The very fact that we are introduced to court through Abigail Hill, an underdog who is falling through the cracks of society, suggests the centrality of class within The Favourite. The absurd activities and lavish lifestyle of the court, compared with Abigail’s humble social situation, draws on the accurate historical reality of the vastly unequal society of early eighteenth-century England. The very fact that Abigail attempts to climb the social ladder through her employment as chambermaid, yet continues to suffer, pertains to the reality of social mobility: no matter how high she rises she will always feel like an outsider. The duck racing or the throwing of fruit at a nude man for fun inside the walls of the court are not accurate representations of entertainment at court but, as mentioned previously, they do not seek to be historically accurate. These scenes seek to show us a reality, albeit an exaggerated reality, of the excesses of the elite and the unequal distribution of power and wealth concentrated within the hands of the few.
Ultimately, The Favourite is a film which uses the raw material of Queen Anne’s court and her rumoured illicit relationships to discuss the timeless dynamics of power, jealousy, class, and sexuality. By capturing the spirit of Queen Anne’s court, with all its absurdity and inequality, and by adapting a revisionist historical lens of gender, The Favourite draws on details of historical reality, yet is also not tied down by them.
Written by Boryana Ivanova
Fleming, Mike. “Oscars Last Call: ‘Room’ Scribe/Historian Emma Donoghue On Why Audacious Royals Romp ‘The Favourite’ Is Template For Future Palace Pics.” Deadline, February 12, 2019. https://deadline.com/2019/02/the-favourite-emma-donoghue-history-movies-yorgos-lanthimos-olivia-colman-rachel-weisz-emma-stone-oscars-1202555461/
Vickery, Amandy, Hannah Greig, and Hallie Rubenhold, host. “The True History of the Favourite.” History Extra (podcast). January 10, 2019. Accessed 2 November 2021. https://www.historyextra.com/period/stuart/true-history-the-favourite-queen-anne-olivia-colman-historical-accuracy-podcast/
Weil, Rachel Judith. Political Passions: Gender, the Family and Political Argument in England, 1680-1714. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010.