by Jennifer Bryce
Five years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing The James Plays, by Rona Munro, at the Edinburgh Festival. These plays depict the lives and times of three generations of royalty in 15th Century Scotland. As I watched these plays, I became aware of the power and influence of women in the Scottish court at that time. (I’m aware of the fact that these plays are written by a woman!) Up until then I had thought that, with some notable exceptions (Joan of Arc, Queen Victoria), women played a fairly submissive role in the shaping of history until the first waves of Women’s Liberation — the Suffragettes in the early 20th Century. I was wrong. Consider the influence of many of Shakespeare’s women characters: Goneril obessessed with overthrowing King Lear, and Lady Macbeth goading her husband into grasping power.
The film The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lathimos does not aim to be an exact depiction of the times of Queen Anne (who reigned in early 18th Century Britain), but it does help us to imagine what it might have been like to be in her position in those days. Lathimos underlines this intended lack of historical fastidiousness by playing around with some of the court dancing and having costumes that are almost right, but not made of contemporary fabrics. Most of the music has a degree of authenticity (Queen Anne loved the music of Handel) — and incidentally there is glorious singing by Angela Hicks.
Anne was married to a Danish prince, but the film opens after he had died and Anne (played by Olivia Colman), who would have then been considered ‘middle aged’, is a sickly and in many ways lonely woman, tormented by the memories of her 17 children whom she lost through miscarriages or early childhood death. In the film, these children are cleverly represented by 17 ‘cute’ rabbits, kept in her bedchamber. When Anne plays with her rabbits she becomes playful and maternal — but overall she is a troubled woman.
Olivia Colman as Queen Anne
Sarah Churchill (Duchess of Marlborough, Rachel Weisz) did play a significant role as an advisor to Queen Anne. In the film, when out of the eye of officialdom, Anne and Sarah at first behave like the childhood friends they were. Sarah, pushing Anne in her wheelchair, asks if she wants to go fast, and they race back to her chambers. Clearly, they confide in all kinds of things and Sarah is in a position to influence Anne in making political decisions; Sarah aligning with the Whigs whereas Anne, when she is well enough to concern herself, is more disposed towards the Tories.
Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough
In the film Anne and Sarah’s relationship is sexual. This seems quite plausible — the lonely queen — Sarah probably now the only person to whom she is close. However, when Abigail Masham, a new servant, comes on the scene, Anne is clearly attracted to her. Sometimes it is Abigail who is invited to the royal bedchamber. Jealousy flares. In the film, Abigail is shown as scheming. Through her relationship with Anne she marries a nobleman and from her fallen state (she is a cousin of the Duchess) she resumes a position in keeping with her previous status.
Abigail, the butt of Sarah’s jealousy
We might at first have sympathy for Abigail. She is intelligent. She is not cut out for scrubbing floors … But one time, in the Queen’s chamber, when the rabbits have been released to play, we see Abigail press her foot destructively on a rabbit at her side. Anne, feeling unwell at the time, does not notice.
Abigail after resuming her upper class status
History suggests that Anne and Sarah fell out over political differences. This is mentioned in the film, but far stronger are the jealousies of a lesbian love triangle.
The ending of the film is by no means definitive. This is apparently typical of other movies directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. There is a shot that merges images of Anne, Sarah, Abigail and the rabbits — maybe Anne’s state of mind?
I found the film interesting as a study of the possible inner life of the lonely, tormented Queen Anne. It is also a reminder of the influence that could be wielded by women at that time. As one reviewer says, ‘ 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.’ https://www.historyextra.com/period/stuart/real-history-the-favourite-film-queen-anne-olivia-colman-hannah-greig/