Look, I get it. Yorgos Lanthimos can be tough to understand. And maybe, sometimes, even harder to swallow. But as far as fun movies to debate, and complications to dissect, no one does it better than Yorgos. Nobody. First, he brought us The Lobster, which was such a mindjob, and so complicated, that there have been over 200 comments on that post. And then Yorgos brought us The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which, I enjoyed more than life itself – it was so convoluted and mindjoby. Both just perfect for discussion and debate.
Well, now, Yorgos Lanthimos brings us another movie, but this time it’s a period piece about Queen Anne, called The Favourite. Queen Anne – for those of you who disdain history – was Queen of England from 1702 through until her death in 1714. And the focus of the movie is the relationship between Queen Anne and the Duchess of Marlborough (Or Lady Churchill, or Sarah Churchill – gah, let’s just call her Sarah for heaven’s sakes) and Sarah’s cousin Abigail Masham. The particulars of the story are actually quite close to the history of the day. Minus the fact that there is no indication that Queen Anne ever had a lesbian relationship with anyone. While Yorgos has played fast and loose with this fairly enormous detail regarding Queen Anne, the thing that will fill the seats for The Favourite is decidedly the razor sharp wit of his shiv of a script.
It’s basically a Dangerous Liaisons for the modern age. But be careful, it may very well slit your throat while you aren’t looking. And since it is so enthralling, why don’t we deep dive on what happens, and then talk about it afterwards. But, please understand, the rest of this will be 100% spoilers from here on out.
The Favourite Movie Walkthrough
As the movie kicks off, Queen Anne – post her husband’s (Prince George of Denmark) death, – is tightly entangled with Sarah as her only support. And, as with the Duchess of Marlborough, she supports the Whigs which are generally in favor of the England’s various wars (led by Sarah’s husband, the Duke of Marlborough). The two are thoroughly enmeshed in a passive aggressive relationship that has apparently been going on for years. As Lady of the Bedchamber, the “friendship” between Sarah and Queen Anne was widely known and reported in the day. Sarah treated the Queen caustically and critically, determining that the Queen wasn’t smart enough to manage issues of state, especially with regard to the wars that Sarah and her Whig friends thought as necessary. The movie goes a step further than history, and posits their relationship was sexual, which just ups the ante as the rest of the story unfolds.
Which brings us to Abigail Hill, the real life cousin of Sarah Churchill. Abigail was the daughter of Francis Hill, a merchant in the London area. The only problem? Her father was widely known for his poor entrepreneurial speculations which reduced their family to poverty. Eventually, Abigail was forced to work as a servant for Sir John Rivers of Kent. The movie tells of Abigail’s coming to work as a servant for the Queen, when in fact, Abigail came to live with Sarah and her family about two years before Sarah became the Lady of Bedchamber. Particulars aside, the movie tells of Abigail’s cunning in her ascension to the Queen’s bedchamber. And in real life, the Queen carried on a close friendship with Abigail for several years before Sarah became aware of it.
Yorgos’ telling of the story of The Favourite is definitely ratcheted up a few notches from reality through the sexual nature of the relationships, but also through the utterly delicious, and cutting writing employed in his script. In reality, the push and pull of Sarah’s and Abigail’s relationship with the Queen came from her desire to take care of the war efforts. But it was counterbalanced by her spiritual dedication to her Anglican Church, which was supported by the Tory party in Parliament. In the movie, these tensions are played out through homeopathic remedies to the Queens various maladies, demotions, poisonings, and other machinations intent on control of the Queen’s affections. And these internal feuds had an enormous impact on the kingdom at large – but from a movie standpoint, we care mainly about razor sharp barbs thrown back and forth.
“Abigail, you were once a lady, and now a servant, scullery scraps, how very sad.”
“I am still the lady I was, in my heart.”
“No doubt. It is important to make new friends. Don’t you think?”
“Yes, if that’s what’s actually happening here. Not veiled threats under the guise of civility.”
“Am I to understand you are smart?”
(Minute later) “I won’t betray my mistress’ trust.”
“Oh look, a wren, how cute…” SHOVE “Are you alright? Anyway, think on it. No pressure.”
Am I to understand you are smart?! hahaha. I promise you, Yorgos will win a nomination for best original screenplay for this effort. Promise. [And he did!] Well, eventually Abigail secretly is given her ladyship back. And eventually the Queen secretly helps Abigail get married to Samuel Masham, a gentleman of the Queen’s Household. And, as the pushing and pulling results in Sarah’s banishment from the Queen’s palace, we watch as Abigail wins the day both socially and politically. But Yorgos has a thing or two to say about winning this particular war. We watch as we see Abigail’s complete debasement as the Queen’s lackey. She, following a similar path to Sarah, years earlier, rides the favor of the Queen straight into the ground. We see that her marriage with Masham was just a ploy for status within the court. We watch as she wretches in front of the Queen after drinking too much at court.
And the final scene of the movie has the Queen’s guard heading to the Duke of Marlborough’s estate in order to remove him as the Captain-General of the British forces. And there in the Queen’s Bedchamber, we see that the Queen is basically bedridden as Abigail is sitting and reading. Annoyed by the bunnies hopping about the Queen’s chamber, she places a foot on one of the rabbits, causing it to squeal. Moments later, the Queen stands by the bed and orders Abigail to rub her legs. And in much a similar maneuver, the Queen forces Abigail to squeal, if internally.
But What Does It All Mean?
If we look to Yorgos’ previous movies, we can be certain of one thing, and that is, he never creates anything without considering the deeper meaning that he is trying to convey. In Killing of a Sacred Deer, we discussed how Yorgos was indicting the selfishness of the American institution and the lack of concern for selflessness and others. And The Lobster skewered the way in which we, as a society, belittle the singles amongst us. So, what is The Favourite saying? Well, Lanthimos, when asked what the film could possibly mean, replied “For me filmmaking is not about making statements, but about exposing human behavior so people are eager enough to start thinking on their own and make their own assumptions. I make films to explore concepts and raise questions, not tell the audience what to think.” Which, sort of frees us up to deconstruct his film at will. But that doesn’t get us any closer to an answer. Hrm. And Emma Stone, in the midst of filming a scene out in the garden had a thought, “What is this movie and what is it gonna be?” And Yorgos’ response? He sort of shrugged and said, “I don’t know.” So Stone really didn’t have much of a clue herself, and even so, Stone said, “But I trusted that it was all gonna come together!”
To deconstruct The Favourite maybe we ought to begin with the characters and their various interactions. At first it would seem that Abigail is our heroine…that she is sweet, and kind, and loving in spite of her lowly station. But, as the movie trudges on, we see that Abigail’s kindness hides a deeper and boiling meanness. Instead of kissing a suitor, she bites him. She poisons her cousin, almost killing her, but instead disfiguring her for life. And likewise, Sarah tells the Queen she is ugly at times, badger looking. She treats other members of court cruelly, specifically Abigail (who she threatens to continue kicking her without stop, until she leaves). The machinations of court are completely uncovered, and the lack of concern for those being governed is readily obvious.
The three women of this film are bewitched by power, greed, and cruelty. Abigail has come to know the sadistic joys of being able to do anything to anyone… save for the Queen. And that is how the Queen ends the movie, proving just that to Abigail. That the way Abigail just treated the rabbit, is how the Queen is going to treat Abigail. Almost a golden rule in reverse. Which brings us to one possible meaning of the film.
We Are All Evil Monsters
The Queen is literally a monster. The boils. The gout. The stroke. The constant gorging of food, and then the puking. It isn’t a stretch to say Queen Anne is a literal monster. Sarah, accustomed to the intrigue of the palace, has evolved into the perfect Palatial Predator. Keen insights to threats. A nose for weakness. And a Jealousy to end all comers. Sarah is the Alpha to reckon with. And Abigail, while appearing sweet, is actually the most cunning of them all. “You mean to tell me you are smart?” How do we know she is the most cunning? Because, while remaining the appearance of sweet, she actually will gut you like a fish. Remember her wedding night? Yeah, that was a maneuver to grab a power coupling in order to secure herself a ladyship, and a powerful husband. And nothing more. And her true self is unveiled at the end when we see her drinking and flirting with other men. We really are evil through and through.
This Is Not About A Queen
Similarly to the above thoughts, what if this isn’t about a Queen at all? What if this is actually about you, and about me? Could it possibly be that this story is set in the most extreme setting imaginable and with the out of control characters simply to tell us a story about ourselves? I don’t know about you, but I’m two faced on the best of days. I may not wear Victorian wigs and release false rumors throughout Parliament in an effort to set the Queen’s agenda. But I do work hard to get my way, day in and day out, and I use people standing too close to the blast radius in order to effect the outcome my direction. How different is that from what we just witnessed in this movie?
What Is The Point Of It All?
As Anne’s life was coming to an end, she had a stroke that kept her from ever speaking again, and then she died a month later. The movie basically walked directly up to Queen Anne’s grave and watched as she thrashed right up until the end. And, as the Queen is shoving Abigail’s face into the dung heap she’d amassed that was her reign, we can all but see her wondering what this life is really all about. And actually, if we were to consider our own “amassed fortunes” (whatever they might be) we could all (including Warren Buffett) wonder if this is what it’s all about. Because we aren’t taking any of it with us, naked we come into this world, naked we leave it. And so if we have been monsters, hellbent on amassing our own fiefdom, we can be sure to reconsider our every move as we head out the door. I mean, don’t you think? Living a horrific nightmare version of everyone’s dream – shows us the flaw in our thinking. Which brings us back to Yorgos Lanthimos’ method of filmmaking, which is to expose human behavior in order to force audiences to start thinking on their own.
Final Thoughts on The Favourite
The Favourite is more than Mean Girls on steroids. It is a shiv of a movie, hellbent on filleting the audience – so much so that they don’t realize they’ve had an orange placed in their mouth already. But maybe, if we stop, and we think a bit about this Lord of the Flies story, we’ll see ourselves in one of these horrific characters. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll avert disaster before it’s too late.
Edited by, CY
Bespoke Movie Recommendations