This post contains spoilers about the movie The Favourite
I was uneasy about this film because I had heard through the grapevine that there might be a scene where Emma Stone was hurting a rabbit. I cannot tolerate watching such a scene even if it’s faked so I was nervous. Heather Hogan at Autostraddle gave me the information – the rabbit is fine, you’ll know when to avert your eyes, Emma Stone reportedly sobbed after the filming, and it is actually necessary to lead into the films final moments. It worked for me.
Otherwise, I was excited about a movie with three queer women in a love triangle/power struggle set in the final years of the House of Stuart when Anne was the ruling queen of England, Scotland and Ireland (1702–1707) and of Great Britain (1707–1714). Anne’s story is lost, both historically and cinematically to the more compelling Elizabeth I. It is a poorly explored period of time, even for English history and among Britophiles, a time 100 years before the lives of our beloved fictional heroines, Elizabeth Bennett and Jane Eyre, and 100 years after Elizabeth I and Anne’s ancestor, Mary Queen of Scots. I urge you to Google Queen Anne either before or after you see the film.
The movie is set around 1708 when England is at war with France and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is in poor health due to gout and other issues. She has lost 17 children either in utero or during infancy, a loss she acknowledges by adopting 17 pet rabbits that live in her chambers. She’s a miserable character with little interest or aptitude for governing, depending upon her lifelong companion Sarah Churchill, (Rachel Weisz) the Duchess of Marlborough to essentially rule in her stead. Sarah is also Anne’s secret lover.
Emma Stone’s Abigail Hill arrives on the scene seeking refuge and support from her cousin, Sarah. She cooly elevates herself from a scrub maid to a lady’s maid with a few well placed efforts to help the Queen cope with her ailments. Soon Sarah and Abigail are battling to be The Favourite, both inside the Queen’s bedchamber and beyond.
The movie is humorous in a somewhat farcical way, neatly tapered by the reality that these three women were prisoners of the patriarchy with only the thinnest veneers to keep them from the fates of thousands of women in lower classes, women who scrub and cook and labor for the Queen’s household as well as those engaged in sex work of all classes.
The film seems to lampoon a court that shoots pigeons with aloof disdain yet gather to race ducks and lobsters. It is an excess that is grotesque, but seemingly reserved for the 1% of all eras. In one scene, a heartwrenchingly sad Anne is miserably stuffing food into her mouth, puking into a vase, and continuing to eat while the remants of her vomit drip from her chin. It seems exactly fitting behavior for a woman who lost all of her children, has no idea how to do her job, but is imbued with her own divine right to rule with absolute authority. She has no authority on any actual governance matters so she can control her access to food and to the people who serve her. She’s pathetic and she knows it so she uses the few tools at her disposal to survive.
Colman is mesmerizing in this role. She screamed, wailed, gnashed her teeth, pouted, and acted with guttural impunity that we’ve come to associated with ‘mad’ kings suffering from mental illness and/or syphilis. Anne’s pain is tied to circumstances – her lack of education, her devastating losses of children, her health, her unfitness to rule – and she’s just smart enough to know that this is the case. Still, it is a little hard to feel truly sorry for her.
Lady Sarah and Abigail are delightful as they outmaneuver one another to secure the Queen’s support. Sarah is slightly more sympathetic because her devotion seems sincere, grounded in a lifelong friendship and a genuine aptitude for politics. Abigail just wants to survive and has enough cunning to meet her own needs with no regard for a nation that abandoned her to the sexual perversions of her father’s debtors as a young girl.
All of them are grotesquely human fighting through a world that constantly devalues them to sexual satiation or servanthood. It is an unusual perspective for a period piece – the gaze of three queer women. There is no you go girl moment, no triumph, no glory.
There is simply survival, no matter what.
I’m not well-versed in movies to make comparisons, but I was fleetingly reminded of The Grand Budapest Hotel as well as the scene in The Hunger Games when the 1% were also puking up their food while the masses starved. I’m pretty sure that’s not intentional and just the way my mind works. I can’t think of a similar great movie about three queer women. I hope that changes.
And while Weisz and Stone were wonderful, Olivia Colman should be over the top in all awards.
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