Released in UK cinemas at the beginning of January, The Favourite has left reviewers scrabbling for adjectives. Described as a “punk Restoration romp’, an “outrageous period comedy”, a “misanthropic baroque costume drama”, a “tragicomedy”, the labels have been varied – but together they indicate a universal agreement: the director, Yorgos Lanthimos, breaks new ground in his dramatisation of the past.
Set in the court of Queen Anne (1665–1714), The Favourite explores the changing power dynamics and relationships between three female protagonists: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman); Abigail Masham (Emma Stone); and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz).
The latter was Anne’s companion and confidante since girlhood. When Anne succeeded to the throne in 1702, the Duchess of Marlborough was among those she brought with her to court. Granted all the major posts in Anne’s royal household – Groom of the Stole, Mistress of the Robes, Keeper of the Privy Purse and Ranger of Windsor Great Park – Churchill occupied a position of vast authority that she endeavoured to wield to the advantage of her preferred political faction, the Whigs.
For a time, the duchess’s pre-eminence at court and friendship with the queen seemed unshakeable. It was gradually eroded, however, by personal and political differences between the women, and finally shot through by the emergence of a new court favourite. Marlborough’s usurper was Abigail Masham, a lower ranking courtier and cousin of the Duchess of Marlborough, brought into court circles under the patronage of the duchess herself. The Favourite dramatises their triangular and tense struggle for dominance, putting female politics at the heart of every scene while foppish men in red high heels and extravagant suits watch from the edges.
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When any period drama is released, reviewers and audiences often reach instinctively for an accuracy-o-meter, measuring the success of the drama by how it communicates historical facts. Period dramas are relentlessly taken to task for perceived errors, anachronisms or brazen artistic license, with the scale of potential ‘historical howlers’ ranging from the correct way to hold toast in 1910 to putting Connecticut on the wrong side of the vote to end slavery in 1865.
Brace yourselves, then, for the unfamiliar sound of accuracy-o-meters exploding once The Favourite is released. Complete with denim costumes and speech that is neither obviously period nor modern – and with a duck race and dance sequence like no other you’ll have seen in court before – Lanthimos doesn’t simply ignore the perceived conventions of a period drama. He pulps, composts and mixes them into a florid international filmography to conjure an entirely new genre that is distinctly his own. As a director typically associated with postmodern and quirky dystopias, his step back in time has surprised many.
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Artistic license vs historical reality: did Queen Anne really have bunnies in her bedchamber?
Spying on Queen Anne’s court through Lanthimos’s distorting fish eye lens should not trick us into presuming that the drama is heretically ahistorical. Historical insight is layered throughout, underpinning what might seem to be even the most eccentric touches.
Take for instance, Anne’s bunny menagerie. In the film. the queen’s bedroom – the location for much of the plot – is a haven for 17 fluffy rabbits who must be petted by any courtier claiming to be loyal. The bunnies are typical of the film’s aesthetic, and serve as a cute (albeit eccentric and surprising) addition. Of course, pet rabbits would never have been found lolloping around a royal bedchamber: they were an early 18th-century foodstuff and pest. Their function is instead historically symbolic, representing an adult lifetime of pregnancies endured by Anne that only ever resulted in miscarriage, still birth, or the premature death of newborns, infants or children.
Until rescued by more recent historical revisions that recognise both her political and cultural legacies, Anne was a queen who was badly treated by history, subject to quick caricatures that portray her as being frail, ungainly, emotionally needy and ineffective. Her incredibly traumatic obstetric history was often rendered as a footnote, or yet another item on a long list of regal failings levelled against her. She was labelled as the ‘childless’ queen – despite her bearing and burying child after child after child after child. In The Favourite this aspect of her life and reign is brought much more firmly into our vision. Personal pain and court politics come together in the form of the rabbits. The pets remind us of the impact that so many dead heirs must have had not only on the queen as an individual, but also on her court, her reign, and the future of the crown and constitution. No one will leave the film having missed the rabbits. No one will leave without an emotive sense of Anne’s antenatal agonies.
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The film makes no attempt to lecture to us about what happened in Britain in the 1700s. The narrative point is the female power play, not the economic, politics or cultural changes of the day. In consequence, the film’s focus is resolutely on the interior world of the court, and the interpersonal politics waged in the monarch’s bedchamber, private back stairs, and corridors policed by ambitious courtiers. There is little in the way of explanatory contextual information. The narrative rarely ventures beyond the court walls and there are no street or crowd scenes, or panning shots of what society looked like in the early 1700s.
And yet the film very matter-of-factly brings into focus the ways in which the ‘small world’ jostling for power between individuals at court had a much wider significance. At stake in the race to be a court favourite is not just personal gain or some mean girls’ cliques and vanities. It is the grist of state power and high politics. Whether taxes will be raised and whether war will continue or treaties will be signed is indivisible from the question of who attends the queen’s person and who is her most trusted confidante. While the film visualises the relationships between the protagonists in ways that are clearly historical and stylised – the Duchess of Marlborough relaxing in breeched riding clothes, for example – it also takes as read that the historical prize for these women was power of political and national importance. The male politicians stand around in their peacock finery trying to exploit what opportunities they can find, but it is the women who hold all the cards and are not afraid to deal them.
How much power did women have in the court of Queen Anne?
A sense of women’s access to politics and power in early modern England is often presumed to be hard for a modern audience to understand, brought up as we are on a commitment to a narrative that women were excluded from power until a long hard fight for 20th-century suffrage. Any film that ventures into an earlier world of female political influence risks losing the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Hopefully The Favourite’s fearless take on women’s political pasts may encourage more productions to move into this territory. In Lanthimos’s film there is no attempt to explain, justify or judge the fact that the three female protagonists were politically minded. There are no obvious winners or losers, nor is any one of the three clearly more ‘the heroine’ than the rest.
A straightforward acceptance that women exercised political authority in Queen Anne’s court reflects some of the most recent scholarship in the field. The film resists the temptation to cast any one of the three as obviously ‘feminist’, or ‘a woman ahead of her time’ representing relatable 21st-century audience values but in fancy dress. Instead The Favourite is unashamedly historical in its acceptance of female political power as being at the heart of Anne’s court. It burrows down into the passionate, complex and flawed ambitions of the three ruling women while presenting their power as a fait accompli.
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I have enjoyed Lanthimos’s concise responses to the inevitable questions about historical accuracy. “Some of the things in the film are accurate and a lot aren’t,” he told The Hollywood Reporter at The Favourite‘s New York Film Festival premiere. He is absolutely right in this – as, in fact, would any director be in their approach to a drama set in the past.
Accuracy (as generally defined by our clunky accuracy-o-meters that make us think it is measurable) was never the goal in The Favourite. The film does not look like your conventional period drama. And coming from Lanthimos, we would all be hugely disappointed if it did. Costume designer Sandy Powell’s spectacular clothes take us far from the typical period wardrobe. Court servants wear recycled denim, and the leading ladies wear monochrome popping with riotous patterns and African-style prints. In their silhouettes and structures, however, they are purposefully of their time. As Powell has stated in recent red carpet interviews, “you need to know the rules before you break them”. In this regard, her costumes work as a metaphor for the film’s relationship to history in general. The history is there, they have just played around with it, but with a very firm commitment and purpose.
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The Favourite is not – and was never – about providing a documentary-style history lesson. But, to me, its engagement with history runs far deeper in its construction and expression than in films where history is regarded as only the stuff of surface detail. The Favourite did not spend time or effort double-checking whether a hat was cocked correctly or whether or not a lady should hold a fan. Instead it draws on your emotions and focuses on complex character, motivation, intrigue and pain. Here lies history, a human history. The period chintz and flummery have been stripped away to reveal a murkier, fleshier realism.
Dr Hannah Greig is a senior lecturer in early modern history at the University of York and a historical consultant to The Favourite (2018). Her research interests lie in the social, political and material history of Britain in the long 18th century (c1688–1830). She’s the author of The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (OUP, 2013).
The Favourite, starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, was released in the UK on 1 January 2019.
This article was first published by History Extra in November 2018