by Lilly-Mae Murphy

I knew Yorgos Lanthimos’ 18th Century period drama, The Favourite, was going to be good. But I didn’t think it was going to be that good. A film that combines humour, sensitivity, hyper-sexuality, and bloody fantastic costumes; I left the cinema feeling refreshed and wholeheartedly satisfied, which is a feeling I thought I'd forgotten (I owe it all to politics.)

In The Favourite, Abigail (Emma Stone) and Sarah (Rachel Weisz) each fight to be Queen Anne’s ‘favourite’, a petulantly sensitive leader played by the incomparable Olivia Colman. The fight for recognition between Abigail and Sarah leads to an 18th century lesbian love-triangle, filled with petticoats, gas-candles and gout. I’d normally dismiss films about female competition as typical Hollywood narrative, but this was different: Colman, Stone and Weisz each played emotionally complex characters who were more than just their femininity. 

I empathised and hated them all at the same time because their actions were so familiar. Queen Anne pretends to faint in Parliament as she cannot bring herself to speak on her unpopular taxation plans - a level of extra I can get behind. At the beginning of the film, we’re told Stone’s character Abigail is seeking employment after her father had lost their family’s credibility through his gambling addiction, and she had been 'given' to a German man to settle his accumulated debts. Thereafter, Abigail was raped and yielded to a life of submission. However, his trauma doesn’t define her character, and her resilience is rousing. Instead we see her use her sexuality as a means of power, albeit immorally. Although she often flinches in the hands of men, she always regains her composure unscathed.

Abigail even jokes about her sexual assaults, scoffing that it’s ‘gentlemen’ who rape. Queen Anne too portrays trauma that is a heartbreaking reality for many women; as we learn she has suffered 17 miscarriages and now keeps 17 rabbits next to her bed who she calls her ‘children’. Her sensitivity is galvanising and it’s easy to forget she’s portraying one of the most powerful figures of the early 1700s. The film reaches its denouement as we see Abigail - now the Queens obvious ‘favourite’ as Sarah and her husband have been wrongly exiled - heinously stand on one of the rabbits until it squeals. The Queen is visibly fraught with an ambivalent rage, and the film ends with a striking scene; Abigail is once again beckoned to massage the Queen's legs, ending up on her knees as the Queen pushes her head down in Colman's final on-screen act of dominance. As the scene draws to a close, both women weep with the realisation of what they have done. At this point, the moral corruption isn’t important anymore - we are genuinely feeing for both of them.

Colman’s maternal instincts and heartache juxtaposed with Stone’s callousness is important in any conversation about womanhood and maternity in The Favourite; despite her cruel behaviour, condemning Abigail is difficult. Along with the many dimensions of her character, we know her past and reasons which may have driven her to reject the instincts of maternity and responsibility. This representation of womanhood is, again, unexpected but refreshing. We see Colman as a mother to her rabbits, but also as a sexual deviant, a head of state, a friend and as a child all at once. Other period dramas, and let’s face it - the majority of leading roles with women - fail to have such beguiling dimension. 

Deborah Davis wrote the script for The Favourite over 20 years ago after studying letters between Anne, Sarah and Abigail, but it took over a decade for production companies and financiers to show interest. Let’s be honest, Fox Searchlight aren’t typically in the business of producing lesbian sex scenes between an 18th century Queen in a wheelchair and another formidable woman in candle-lit rooms. However, another thing The Favourite does so beautifully is explore the intricacies of lesbian relationships that other narratives have simply failed to do. The relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah isn’t portrayed on our screens as mere debauchery and sex, we actually see very little physical intimacy. Rather, it’s a relationship of support and meaning. The two women genuinely need each other, and whilst it’s amusing that the Queen is ready to throw herself out of the window because Sarah hasn’t been spending as much time with her as she would like, it’s a side to these relationships that mainstream cinema doesn’t always portray. Sarah is genuinely hurt by Abigail winning the Queen’s affections, and this is important in terms of representation. LGBTQ+ critics of film and media often point out that this level of sensitivity isn’t portrayed within lesbian relationships. Instead, a crude and usually male-constructed version of lesbianism is presented. The Favourite is different. 

Copyright: Fox Searchlight

One of the only scenes with a male role in the film is that of a man, wearing nothing but a wig and makeup who is being pelted with oranges and tomatoes, resulting in his hairy body becoming tinged with redness and repulsion. Interestingly, it is the men in this film who are the characters wearing full faces of makeup, extravagant wigs and noisy heels. The women, however, are often bare-faced in understated gowns and often even pants in Rachel Weisz’s case. I couldn’t get the costuming out of my mind. Nicholas Hoult’s lipstick in the shape of a heart compared to Olivia Colman’s bare and despondent face will stay with me for a very long time. What’s so refreshing is men as peripheral characters who exist for nothing more than a display of pathetic pomposity; comic relief at its best. Abigail’s character is asked for her hand in marriage by a Baron (a pretty big deal in 18th century court life) and this doesn’t take more than a few minutes of screen time, nor does it infringe Abigail’s character or her actions in any way at all. If anything, she simply becomes richer and more sexually liberated. Weisz’s character Sarah fights for the continuation of a war that her husband is on the front-line of, but as an audience we aren’t concerned at all over the fate of the Duke of Marlborough simply because Sarah isn’t; another female character whose actions aren’t influenced by men, rejoice! Instead we are more concerned about seeing the visible emotion turmoil she is going through as she is losing control over not only her friend and lover, the Queen, but over her political stances being maintained in Parliament. They aren’t talked over, they aren’t intimidated out of existence and they aren’t influenced. The emotional dimension of these women is invigorating and welcomed with open-arms. 

Representation of womanhood is not what I had expected from this portrayal of a microcosm of courtly life in the early 18th century, but Lanthimos’ screenplay combined with the always fantastic screenwriting of Deborah Davis is exactly what we’ve needed; stripping the 20th century politically volatile climate for all women back down to the corsets and garters of three 18th century women  navigates the turbulent and composite concept of what it means, and has meant, to be a woman. I didn’t think I’d be able to relate to women’s heartache in tapestry-adorned rooms but I did, and I think you will too. 

The Favourite is in cinemas now.