Those familiar with the work of Yorgos Lanthimos know that he has a keen sense of surrealism. His stories are never normal. The idea behind them, the very core of their soul might look like a rather simplistic exposition of human behaviour. But that is only after you have completely stripped them of their bewildering charm, their pitch-black humour, their ridiculous premise and their ability to pull you into a world that never ceases to amaze you.
With ‘Dogtooth’, he brought a story that could rattle your soul as much as it would make you think about the perverse dynamics of a family. In ‘The Lobster’, he questioned the society’s obsession with finding a soul mate by infusing the idea in a story that becomes more relatable the more ludicrous it gets. ‘The Favourite’, which could arguably be his best work to date, is a Lanthimos classic, through and through. From the degrading power of love to the destruction wreaked by ruthless ambition, the story takes an arc that changes our perspective about winning and losing. It gives us three characters, all completely different from each other, all with different motives, playing different games, and yet competing against one another to see if they can have it all.
Giving the performance of a lifetime, Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone show us the world of the women who are as white as they are black, just like the dresses they wear. The whole film looks like a chess game; it seems fun and innocent in the beginning, but then takes a turn for the worse, get bloodier as the pawns begin to fall, and becomes more focused on winning the queen. The only difference between the story and chess is that one of them has a winner.
In ‘The Favourite’, Lanthimos takes things a step further; making it grander than before, more lavish than he has ever been. The more absurd his characters become the better sense they make. They might belong to some bygone era, but their flaws are the same as ours. The power play in relationships is just as it was back then, if not worse; insecurity and the lack of self-worth are still as consuming, if not more; and blind lust for power and position is still chipping away the dignity of people ready to play that game, making them hollower, the more they think they have risen.
Summary of the Plot
The film begins with a queen and her confidant. In the early years of the 18th century, Queen Anne rules Britain from the confines of her bedchamber. She is a frail figure, prone to outrageous mood swings. Suffering from gout, amongst other diseases, she is in pain most of the times and the only reprieve is brought to her in the form of her beloved Sarah Churchill. An exact opposite of the Queen, she is strong, confident, and owing to her incredible sway on the monarch, is a force to reckon with in the court, which is another thing in shambles.
The country is at war with France, and it is draining the blood out of the people of Britain. While the Whigs indulge in petty games and continue to support the war, the Tory leader, Robert Harley is worried about the price that the common people will have to pay for it. His qualms are quite understandable, but he is at a great disadvantage. Lady Churchill is a staunch supporter of the Whigs. She prods the Queen to invest more and more in the war, which makes Harley wish for a similar voice whispering into her ear, only in his favour.
It is in such a situation that Abigail Hill arrives at the palace. A cousin to Lady Sarah, her family fell on hard times and she had to learn to survive and adapt according to the circumstances. But whatever she had been through, working as a scullery maid in the palace was better. She just wants to be good and recover the good name she previously had. After the Queen suffers another miserable night, owing to gout, Abigail brings a remedy that immediately elevates her position. Under the aegis of Lady Sarah, she learns the tricks of the trade. She witnesses the bickering of the politicians as well as the close friendship that Sarah and the Queen share.
One night, Abigail discovers that there is much more to their relationship. She catches Harley’s attention, and he tries to persuade her to affiliate with him. She refuses at first, owing to the loyalty and gratitude to her employer. But soon, the situation changes. She gets bolder in the initiative to elevate herself, which isn’t received well by Sarah. The more she lashes out at Abigail, the more unruly she gets. Trying to beat each other, the consequences of their actions are suffered by the object of their affection. The game soon ends, and just when we think we have a winner, a strange reality dawns upon us. Were there ever going to be any winners after all?
The Favourite Ending: Who is the Real Winner?
We are often asked to not judge a book by its cover, to not pass a verdict on someone unless we are fully acquainted with the whole story. A similar analogy works with games as well. You can learn all the rules, you can memorise all the moves, but until you understand what the game really means, you can never win it. When Abigail finds refuge under Lady Sarah’s wings, she seems an innocent soul, doing what it takes to survive.
However, with the passing time, her ambition soars and we realise that she had been hiding this malevolence inside herself all along. The only side she is on is hers, and she doesn’t care whom she hurts, who gets trampled along the path she wants to pave for her victory. She is quick at reading a situation, she is a fast learner; and while these qualities work excellently to her advantage, she lacks the understanding that only time can provide. And Sarah has had plenty of that.
Despite being so close to Anne, Sarah is often cold and mean to her. She never hesitates in speaking her mind, even when she knows how hurt Anne would be. Abigail uses this to her advantage. She is easier for Anne. She is compassionate, warm and livelier. Once the young maid knows what buttons to press, it doesn’t take time for her to make Sarah fall hard from the good graces of Anne. In the end, Sarah is banished from England, while Abigail takes her place by the Queen’s side. She has clearly won it. But then Sarah mentions that they were not even playing the same game. Abigail doesn’t understand it then, but things do come in perspective after a short while.
Dejected and heartbroken by the departure of Sarah, the Queen becomes sicker. Meanwhile, Abigail enjoys her new-found status and drowns herself in partying and alcohol. One day, while Anne rests, she crushes one of her rabbits under her foot. The creature cries out, and just before she lets it go, Anne catches sight of it. In an effort to get up, she falls from the bed. Abigail rushes to her help, but she is disgusted by her. Now that she knows that her new lover is truly the viper that Sarah had promised she would be, she decides to change the dynamics of their relationship. She asks Abigail to rub her legs, and as she does so, she holds her hair for support, bearing down on it with all the hatred in her heart- an act that asserts her dominance, showing Abigail who’s in command here.
Before we announce the winner of the game, let’s contemplate on the fate of the losers. The first one to lose is definitely Anne. Even though she was queen, she never really was one. The only meaningful thing in her life was her relationship with Sarah. They had known each other since childhood; and despite Sarah’s harsh demeanour, there was immense love between them. They had been with each other through thick and thin, and Sarah knew her inside out. This is why she wouldn’t easily give up to her whims and treated her with tough love as a mother would her naughty child. She was mean and harsh, but at least she was truthful. Abigail, on the other hand, was sweet poison. All that she did was for herself. How it affected Sarah and Anne, or anyone else didn’t matter to her. She didn’t know Anne as Sarah did, she wasn’t in love with the Queen. There might have been some affection in the beginning, but it washed out after her purpose had been served. Now, it was just something she had to tolerate.
Anne loved Sarah whole-heartedly, but she wanted her to be softer. When that didn’t happen, she received that warmth from Abigail, and it became easier for her to gravitate towards her. Her only fault was her whimsical character, which led her to make spontaneous decisions without giving proper thought to them. In the end, when she witnesses sweet, dear Abigail’s mean, sadistic side, she realises that she has made a grave mistake. By banishing Sarah, she has severed the one link she had to sanity. Now she is all alone in a palace that is hers and yet, full of strangers. She has replaced the only meaningful thing in her life with a hollowed version that looks good on the outside, but will never be what she originally had. Abigail is just another rabbit in her collection, a pet. But the one that she hates.
One would think that Abigail won the game. She got her title back, she has power and influence, and she is exactly where she wanted to be. We too thought so, until the final minutes of the film. With the Queen clutching on her hair, we see a flurry of emotions on Abigail’s face. Disgust, pain, anger, and then a quiet acceptance. It is in this moment she realises what a stupid mistake she made by getting Sarah thrown out of their lives. It could have been so much easier, so much better for her. All this scheming and plotting, and she is still where she was before she came to the palace. When her father sold her to pay off his debt, she had to live as a prostitute for a while. Gratifying someone to keep herself alive. She is back there, only now, she is caught under the ownership of one person who absolutely hates her. She might have better clothes, more money and a better standing in society now, but she is still a prostitute, a slave to the demands of the Queen. Before, she could run away from that life. But now, she is trapped. There is no escape from this hell.
With both Anne and Abigail hating each other for the rest of their lives, one can consider Sarah to be the winner of this game. She might be banished from the country, but at least now, she doesn’t have to tolerate the Queen’s whims. She doesn’t have to keep her happy in order to maintain her influence. But is that really what her relationship with Anne was. Exploitation? Not really. As I previously said, she truly loved Anne, and she loved England. Now, she doesn’t have any of them. Is it her fault? Surely, she made a lot of mistakes and paid the heftiest price for it. But then, at least she is not stuck with a person she hates.
Is The Favourite Based on a True Story?
If you didn’t like ‘The Favourite’, it is most probably because you went in expecting a typical historical drama. Instead, you found a study of human behaviour through the dynamics of the relationships of three women. The story finds its roots in history but is not completely dependent on it to prove its point. It is not the most historically accurate film, but it doesn’t even try to be that. If you are interested in the fact vs fiction game, then here it is.
Almost all basic things of the plot, like the Queen’s poor health, the political influence of Sarah, the power struggle between the Whigs and Tories, the wedge driven by Abigail, are all very real. But there are some subtle changes. For example, in the movie, Sarah and Abigail acquaint for the first time directly at the palace. In real life, Abigail was first employed at Sarah’s household and moved to the palace a few years later. By then, she had formed a close relationship with Sarah, which is what made her betrayal all the more painful. Similarly, Abigail and Harley are strangers in the movie, but they were cousins in real life, which is why it was easier for Abigail to align herself with the Tories.
In a similar vein, the Queen did have 17 miscarriages, but she didn’t have a pet rabbit for each of them. There are some gaping errors like the complete absence of Anne’s husband, who was pretty much alive during these events in real life. The real question, however, is whether there really were sexual relationships between Sarah and Anne, and Anne and Abigail. As such, there is no concrete proof of that. In her letters, the Queen did address the intimacy, but it wasn’t explicitly physical. But Sarah did make use of their ambiguity. She did threaten Anne when she wouldn’t let go of Abigail and is said to have spread the rumours about the Queen’s homosexual nature.
If you feel empty after that ending and can’t help but wonder about Abigail and Anne’s suffering, then here is something that might make you feel a bit better. Shortly after she had the stroke, the Queen passed away. So, none of them had to endure each other for much longer. After this, the Whigs rose back to power and Abigail and her husband were sent away. Sarah Churchill, on the other hand, returned soon after and created strong ties with the next king and queen. She lived the longest and even got the last word, by writing a memoir about her time with Anne.