If the release of a new period drama isn’t accompanied by a debate about its historical accuracy, is it even a period drama?
The bones of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite are entirely factual – Queen Anne really did have a female ‘favourite’, Sarah Churchill, Lady Marlborough, until Sarah (shown below, with Anne) was supplanted in Anne’s affections by her obscure young cousin Abigail Hill. Queen Anne’s relationships with other women were certainly erotic and obsessive; whether they were physically sexual is up for discussion, but if you are passionately against that possibility, The Favourite may not be for you.
For what it’s worth, this film has been on my radar since I watched the RSC’s superlative production on the same subject, Queen Anne, in 2017. But where that play was sparsely staged and insular to the point of claustrophobic, its focus on corridors-of-power machinations as well as the suffocating nature of female friendship, The Favourite is lavish and lewd, noisy and nauseating, comic, grotesque and unsettling in equal measure.
It excites me that these two readings of a historical moment can exist simultaneously; as a writer of historical fiction I’m rigorous about research, but historical fiction is not history: at its best it’s a creative response to the facts, rather than a slavish retelling, and Lanthimos is faithful to the spirit of the early eighteenth century, not the letter.
The Favourite’s duck races, absurd dance routines and gouty queen add up to a satisfying Greenaway-esque confection of what we imagine the period to be. Anachronistic perhaps, but Rachel Weisz is gorgeously piratical in breeches; elsewhere the costume department have fun with laser-cut lace for a modern take on eighteenth-century fussiness, with oversized monochrome polka-dotted skirts falling just the right side of Wonderland.
A fish-eye lens is standard fare in arthouse film, but used in this context it brings the sense of watching proceedings through an Oeil de Sorcière mirror, distorting and stretching the characters as they pass across it. This is a film interested in, and knowledgeable about, its historical context, but which has no sacred cows: the real court of Queen Anne is distorted into a hyper-real place of visual and emotional extremes, entirely in keeping with the grotesquery of the era.
I’d hesitate to call a film ‘feminist’ simply because it manages to pass the Bechdel Test, but The Favourite has serious things to say about women and power. As Sarah points out, although she and Abigail vie for the same prize, they are playing quite different games. Confident, clever Lady Marlborough, born into privilege, seeks to consolidate greater political and social control for herself and her husband, whereas Abigail Hill – impoverished, outcast and sexually compromised – is not so ambitious.
As a lone young woman her dominant concern is self-preservation. She’s conniving, but, as she puts it, “when I end up on the street […] steadfast morality will be a fucking nonsense that will mock me daily.” Lines like this capture a real truth of history: for women who have nothing, chastity is a luxury, and good behaviour counts for nothing without the mutual good behaviour of others.
Queen Anne herself, meanwhile, is depicted as a woman helplessly swept along by events. She has not chosen her position, and it has cosseted her into a child-woman, racked by emotions she hasn’t the vocabulary or the permission to express.
Her lovers take different tacks to engage her interest, both of which only serve to reveal how damaged she is: Sarah’s bluntness and withdrawal of affection leaves her explosively jealous; Abigail’s willingness to validate her terrible grief unravels her.
Power, for this queen, is a burden and a terror. The real Anne may have ruled competently, but just like her fictional counterpart she chose to refer to herself and Sarah Churchill as ‘Mrs Morley’ and ‘Mrs Freeman’, play-acting the equal friendship ordinary women enjoyed, as if they were not monarch and subject.
The pathos of this kind of detail brings heart to a film that could otherwise be cruel and glib, and Olivia Colman brings extraordinary soul and sweetness to her monstrous role.
The Favourite is certainly no cosy costume drama, nor is it really a romp – it is too cold, too mannered, too bleak for that – but it is an extraordinary way of engaging with an extraordinary historical moment.
Lanthimos’ film is ultimately a parable of a triad of women who respectively are born great, achieve greatness, or have greatness thrust upon them: it brings none of them much happiness, but it is a wonderful piece of work.
Imogen Hermes Gowar studied Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History before going on to work in museums. She began to write fiction inspired by the artefacts she worked with, and in 2013 won the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship to study for an MA in Creative Writing at UEA.
Her first novel, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, was published in 2018. It was a finalist in the MsLexia First Novel Competition and shortlisted for the inaugural Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers’ Award and the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
The novel, set in London in 1785, was also longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and the HWA Debut Crown. It was one of the top historical books of 2018 selected by members of the Historical Writers’ Association.