The Favourite: How important is Historical Accuracy in a Period Movie?

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Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is on my Top Ripples 2018 list. I added it in after I’d already posted my annual wrap. I judged it mainly on the basis of its aesthetics, film as an art form, the acting, cinematography, and overall styling.

I went into the theatre with no prior knowledge of the historical details. So, with no a priori burden as a fact-checker, I just let my curiosity lead me, and soon I was transported to a very different world in a very different time. The Favourite shows us Queen Anne’s court in early 18th C. England, where the Whigs fight against the Tories, where men wear wigs and stay indoor cheering on ducks racing or hurling fruits at a naked, good-humoured and heavy-set man (easy target) who finally slips on the fruity and juicy floor, while women play with guns and shoot pigeons outdoor, and pretty good aims they are too, both with the pigeons and in narrowly missing the human target, just as a warning.

the favourite

The film is all about the relational triangle between three women. The trio of actors are undoubtedly the distinguished assets of the production: Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz her intimate confidante Lady Sarah Churchill, and Emma Stone as Abigail, Sarah’s cousin and novice chambermaid, soon the new favourite of the Queen’s. Abigail is a quick study; in no time they are all drawn into a three-way tug-of-war. Although initially coerced by the leader of the Tories, Robert Harley (A wigged and made up Nicholas Hoult, long way from About A Boy, 2002), to spy on Anne and Sarah, who sides with the Whigs, Abigail later learns to use Harley’s influence as leverage to her advantage.

Against the historic backdrop of the war with France, the film is an intriguing look into a royal court and partisan politics, but the most meaty story is the power struggles among the three women, and how conflicting dynamics, sexual politics, emotional manipulation, jealousy, and treachery will ultimately consume all. If you’re on an existential quest for meaning, look elsewhere. This film is pure entertainment, irreverent, surreal, sumptuous in set design, costumes, make-up, and spot-on in editing and acting; but it’s not for the serious meaning seeker.

The Cinematography effectively augments the overall aesthetics. Director of photography (DP) Robbie Ryan used a fisheye lens and a roving camera to sweep wide-angled shots, giving us a lively, larger but distorted view, like looking into a fishbowl, which is totally compatible with the genre, for to say The Favourite is a comedy is an understatement. The film is more a farce, and at times outrageous to the point of gratuitous sensationalism. The effect is acerbic sarcasm.

But there are plenty pleasing things to look at as the camera captures the sumptuous set design. The fluid, almost 360º camerawork pans like an all knowing eye. That in itself is ironic, for hidden agendas are ubiquitous among the characters. Shot in 35 mm film, Ryan utilizes natural lighting, and in the dark, a single candle light, all work to serve up a classy, Rembrandt-like impression.

The music too, plays a prominent role in establishing the overall classical tone, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel… yet with a splash of contemporary touch as well, like, Elton John’s “Skyline Pigeon” on harpsichord, and piano. Incidentally, in a few scenes, a long-lasting single note or two – which I’m sure even Philip Glass would find too minimal – will repeat and repeat to pull the string of tension, keeping viewers edgy and uncomfortable. Considering Lanthimos’ previous Cannes winning films The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) and The Lobster (2013), The Favourite is relatively conventional in style as a period movie.

I have no favourite among the trio, all three deliver spot-on performance, lively in restraints or outbursts. Colman’s gout-stricken Queen Anne is ludicrous and simple minded, but only in appearance. In a candid moment in front of Abigail, she pours out her inner hurts, so much tragedy in her life: 17 pregnancies, none survived. The 17 rabbits she keeps in her bedchamber are symbols representing each one of her loss, twelve miscarriages and stillborn, five dead children. Doting on them is Anne’s way of dealing with her loss.

And kudos to Abigail who at one point has indeed shown genuine sympathy for the Queen’s plight. Anne is perceptive of this too, a point well earned in Abigail’s favour. Stone is well cast in her role, her initial naiveté shines through. She soon learns that is her best weaponry, and uses it well as she turns into a master of manipulation behind the youthful and innocent mask.

Weisz’s Sarah is cool, scheming, head-strong and controlling. She is the voice and brain of Queen Anne, and yet we can see too that there is a strain of care underlying the strong front. Love speaks the truth, she tells Anne at one point, and the Queen seems to accept Sarah’s opinion with docility – including comment such as “you look like a badger”, citing the smeared eyeshadow on her face – that is, until Abigail shows up.

A palace is a decadent place where power reigns supreme for whoever that happens to grab it for the moment. A mud bath for two could easily shift the dynamics of power balance. It’s intriguing and hard to discern if Anne’s fondness of lesbian pleasures is not so much a result of her innate senses but an intentional bait to control. Ultimately all three fall prey to uncensured misery. The closing shot shows there’s no winner, only the mashed up image of the two remaining in the Queen’s chamber, blurring and overlapping with the propagation of rabbits. And what are they, these rabbits, but symbols of death and remembrance of loss? Surely not a comedic ending.

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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After watching the film I went online to learn more about Queen Anne and the historic background of the movie. Here are some of my findings (Warning: Spoilers):

There were no rabbits – They are but director Lanthimos’ own creation. But does it matter that the real-life Queen Anne didn’t have a soft spot for bunnies? I feel they are quite effective here in the film, contrasting Anne’s soft heart and Abigail’s callous, sadistic dealing with those around her, notable is the scene where she steps on one almost crushing the poor creature flat on the floor. Quite like a movie adaptation of a book, a film is a totally different entity and art form for expression.

Abigail did not poison Sarah Churchill – I can understand, to advance the plot and consistent with Abigail’s callous scheming to get rid of obstacles in her way. However, maybe a slight apology to the real Abigail Hill in history for portraying her like a Lady Macbeth?

Queen Anne had a husband – Queen Anne married Prince George of Denmark in 1683.  She had been married for 19 years before she came to the throne and reigned for 12 years, 1702–1714. Prince George died six years into her reign in 1708. According to some historic records, their marriage was strong and she was devastated by his demise. Abigail arrived in Anne’s palace in 1704, married Samuel Masham in 1707, Sarah stripped from her royal position in 1711. There’s an overlap of several years with Anne’s husband still alive when Abigail came into Anne’s court.

There is no mention at all in the film about Anne’s husband Prince George. Anne was portrayed as a single woman with a lesbian lover, Sarah Churchill, then later shifted her favourite to Abigail. The main thrust of the film is built on a lesbian love triangle. Is that also within the creative license held by the filmmaker?

Sarah and Anne’s real relationship remains unclear – Historic records show Anne and Sarah were inseparable since childhood, thus fostering a long-time mutual devotion to each other. The two had exchanged letters with passionate descriptions. As for the new favourite, Abigail, there was rumour that a song was circulated by the Whigs suggested that Anne committed “dark deeds at night” with a “dirty chambermaid.”

Letters from Anne to Sarah still exist and it’s clear there was a deep love between them – until Anne shifted to a new favourite, and in the movie, all due to Abigail’s scheming.

In a BBC News article, Queen Anne biographer Anne Somerset and playwright Helen Edmundson, who wrote the 2015 play on the relationship between Anne and Sarah performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, both agreed that “no one can now be entirely sure of the nature of the relationship between Anne and Sarah.” Further, “we should be wary of assuming that attitudes to sex, friendship and romance were the same as they are today.”

Such an ambiguity may just be too enticing a bait to pass by for a film director to tailor it for today’s audience. Does a period movie based on history need to be ‘faithful’ to it, or, the artist holds the creative license to imagine and create. Many period films do have discrepancies with historic facts. Perhaps, like adaptations from books, filmmakers can be revisionists as well?

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Some links to historical background:

The woman behind Queen Anne’s reign, BBC News

Anne (1665 – 1714), BBC History

The True Story Behind The Favourite, TIME

Was Queen Anne Really Caught in a Lesbian Love Triangle? Fact Checking The Favourite, People

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