The Favourite sheds light on a compelling and often-overlooked corner of British history, yet it frequently exaggerates or deviates from these past events. Set in the early 18th Century, The Favourite centers upon the turbulence of Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) royal court. Here's what really happened and what the ending of Yorgos Lanthimos' film really means.
In The Favourite, England is at war with France, and Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) and other members of its divided government grapple for control. The Queen herself is physically and mentally frail, and she relies upon her companion Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), Duchess of Marlborough, to effectively assume her duties. All of this changes when Sarah's cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arrives. Abigail lost her status years ago, and she is prepared to reclaim her life of luxury – by any means necessary. Thus a heated conflict begins, as the two women vie for the Queen’s affections.
It’s an established fact that filmmakers have to tinker with timelines and events to craft a satisfying cinematic experience. But director Yorgos Lanthimos (via THR) openly stated that it was never his attention to stick to historical records with The Favourite, and that he veered off wherever he "thought was necessary in order to make this a powerful, complex film." Certainly, with his use of fish-eye lenses, jarring music and many other modern inflections, has ensured that The Favourite is a stylised – and surreal – period piece unlike any other. As such, it can be difficult to interpret The Favourite’s ending, and whether the film’s more colorful moments - such as duck racing and the central sexual relationships – actually happened.
- This Page: The Favourite's True Story (& Changes)
- Page 2: The Favourite's Ending Explained
The True Story of Queen Anne's Reign (and What The Favourite Changed)
Compared to the Tudor and Windsor dynasties, the reign of Queen Anne is a lesser-known entry in British history. Olivia Colman has received much acclaim for her nuanced performance as the erratic and infirm monarch, which is generally true to life.
Remarkably, the loss of Anne’s seventeen children – and the affect upon her psyche – is not an exaggeration; most of her children were miscarried or stillborn, but her oldest child, Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, passed away aged eleven. Yet it is Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark, who is conspicuous by his absence in the film; despite his unremarkable reign, various other historians assert that George and Anne were devoted to each other, and that she was devastated when he died. Not only did this happen within The Favourite’s chosen time-frame, but George’s death proved to be a huge turning point in her relationship with Sarah Churchill (more on that shortly).
The Favourite centers on Abigail Hill, who entered into Anne's service in 1704 and purposefully begins to disrupt the Queen's friendship with Sarah Churchill shortly after her arrival. Historians are divided about how devious Abigail was, since she did use her influence to further Robert Harley's cause. However, its generally believed that her relationship with Anne was a genuine one, and that her rise only exacerbated the cracks that had already formed in the Queen and the Duchess's bond. Sarah had long pushed the Queen to oppose Harley and support his opposition (the Whigs). Anne was also irritated by Sarah's nonattendance of royal court, and that she was frequently forgetting her place as the Queen's subordinate. As such, records suggest that by the time that Abigail met Anne, the latter had grown tired of Sarah’s political pressuring and her general bullishness.
In 1707 the Queen attended Abigal's marriage to Samuel Masham. The Favourite rightly details that this was an important event in the battle between Sarah and Abigail, with the latter orchestrating her marriage after poisoning the former, although the film posits a rather different context for the wedding than what actually occurred. There’s no record that Sarah’s poisoning – or her sojourn in a brothel – ever occurred. Abigail's marriage merely took place during one of Sarah's absences in 1707, and it wasn't until a year afterward that the real tipping point came. 1708 saw the death of Anne’s husband, Prince George, and it was Sarah’s reaction that proved to be the final straw for Queen Anne. Unconvinced by Anne’s strong displays of grief, Sarah refused to observe the mourning period appropriately. She even removed a portrait of George from Anne’s bedroom to spare the Queen pain from being reminded of his passing.
This bluntness proved to be a bad move on Sarah’s part, and their friendship never recovered. The Duke of Marlborough had similarly fallen from favor, and when he was dismissed from his position alongside Sarah, they headed to Europe, as shown in the final act of The Favourite. Certainly, it seems that Sarah’s politics and her personality led to her downfall, instead of the trio's illicit relationships.
Was The Favourite's Lesbian Love Triangle Real?
Many historians find it difficult to confirm whether Queen Anne’s relationships with Abigail Masham and Sarah Churchill were sexual or not. Sources from that time – as well as their subsequent analyses – can warp the original facts due to the bias and intentions of their respective writers. Indeed, the situation between Sarah Churchill and Queen Anne demonstrates this perfectly. Whilst Anne’s reliance on Sarah waned in the late 1710s, the Duchess of Marlborough commissioned and distributed a poem that alluded to a supposed lesbian relationship between Anne and her new favorite. Arthur Mainwaring’s poem is believed to have been written to purposefully smear the Queen, and to pressure her into firing her beloved servant Abigail.
Sarah’s own writings continued to reinforce the rumors about Anne and Abigail. Additionally, the Duchess of Marlborough did try to blackmail the Queen with her letters (as seen in the movie) famously stating:
“Such things are in my power that if known… might lose a crown.”
Modern historians believe that she’s returning to several of Anne’s passionate passages where, for example, the future Queen said she would prefer to live alone with Sarah instead of ruling the world without her. Such prose doesn’t confirm the issue though. Many studies have highlighted that these sensual messages were commonplace in the 18th century, especially between aristocratic women.
But this, in turn, raises even more questions for historians. Sarah denied any lesbianism on her own part, yet during Anne’s reign, she received an array lavish gifts from the Queen - including Blenheim Palace - and assumed various key roles – such as Keeper of the Privy Purse – which were usually reserved for men. Lonely and starved for affection, Anne could very well have awarded Sarah these honors based on friendship alone, yet many comparisons can be drawn between this unusually intense companionship and King James I’s attachment to his own favorite, Lord Buckingham. Moreover, historians today widely agree that the latter coupling was a sexual bond.
Furthermore, The Favourite may posit that Sarah was indifferent to her husband John Churchill (Mark Gatiss), but there’s a lot of evidence to indicate that both Anne and Sarah were devoted, stridently Christian wives. Both women were frequently tied to restrictive appointment schedules, and by the time of The Favourite, Lady Sarah’s marriage had produced seven children. Plus, Anne reportedly continued to share her marriage bed with Prince George, despite their respective health problems, until his untimely death.
Of course, these kinds of logistics cannot conclusively preclude Sarah, Queen Anne and Abigail from having sexual relationships with each other. Certainly, despite the many forms of social strictures, queer affairs have occurred throughout the entirety of human history. But while a love triangle – such as the central situation in The Favourite – might have occurred between these real women, various details simultaneously suggest that it did not happen.
Despite its ambiguous final moments (more on that later), the film ends with Sarah in disgrace and Abigail as the victor. Yet history reveals that it was Sarah who ultimately won their power play. It’s true that Anne and Abigail remained together until the Queen’s passing three years later, but her successor George I, immediately reversed their fortunes. Abigail was evicted from her royal residence and retreated to the countryside. Contrastingly, the Marlboroughs were favoured by the king for their previous services to Britain.
Most significantly of all, Sarah’s scathing memoirs continued to shape Anne’s and Abigail's legacy for generations, and its only recently that historians have begun to reassess the last monarch of the Stuart dynasty.
Page 2 of 2: The Favourite's Ending Explained
- The Favourite (2018) release date: Nov 23, 2018