The Favourite

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

There’s a reason monarchies have been abandoned in favour of democracy. In a government where one person makes every decision, corruption is unavoidable. One person can’t know everything, especially when that person has lived a life of privilege. When one person rules an entire nation, matters of the heart and matters of global politics are of equal importance. Whoever can influence the ruler, can influence the ruling of the nation. Whoever owns the ruler’s heart controls the ruler. Whoever controls the ruler can shape the world.

Queen Anne is a widow. She’s lost a husband, seventeen children and all will to live. Lady Sarah fills the void of her husband, seventeen bunnies replace her children, but the wounds will never close. The fate of thousands rest in her hands. She is frail: physically and emotionally and can be manipulated, but she isn’t weak. She is deeply sick, suffering from gout among other ailments, but that doesn’t make her any less a queen, it doesn’t diminish any of the power she wields. She wants to be and needs to be understood: listened to. To be told that she’s pretty, that she’s smart and kind when she doesn’t see herself to be, and when she isn’t any of the above. She seeks a kind of love and care built on lies. But is that love? Is it love to lie?

Lady Sarah does not lie to Anne. She is brutally honest: brutally honest in a way old friends or old lovers would be. Her brutality in the beginning reads as cruelty—as manipulation, as exploitative of a sick older woman. And her political motives are unclear: with a husband abroad at war, why does she try to continue the fight? For love of country, or for contempt? For love of Anne, or for the sheer thrill of exerting power?

Abigail lies. Abigail lies for what seems a good reason: she tells the little white lies you’d like to hear. She’s wide-eyed, bushy tailed and apart from her white lies she is genuine. As opposed to her cousin Sarah, Abigail is emotionally vulnerable. She’s been abused and worked her way to the palace: back to that place of privilege and civility she was robbed of as a child. A place her cousin is thriving, a place where her cousin is basically ruling England.

Abigail sees the power her cousin Sarah wields through her relationship with Anne, a power not necessarily given through sex. It’s Anne’s reliance on Sarah that gives her the power. When Abigail sees them together, she sees Anne’s sexual dominance: ordering Sarah and receiving. Anne bottoms from the top: always receiving, but always dominating. For Sarah, sex is relinquishing her power to gain it back.

But Abigail’s path to win the Queen’s favour is not rooted in sex: it’s rooted in emotion. Abigail helps Anne, she is kind to Anne and she listens to Anne. She flatters her, indulges her and above all else matches Anne’s vulnerability: neither one dominating or submitting, neither one exerting power or trying to influence the other. Until it comes to sex.

Sex is irreversible. Sex is destructive yet transformative. Sex destroys relationships while transforming them. Giving sex is giving yourself: taking sex is taking someone else. Sex is trust. The very fact that Anne would in engage in sex with Abigail is enough to show Sarah her absolute trust in Abigail, a trust that inherently rivals Sarah’s.

There are two partial sex scenes shown between the three leading women of The Favourite. The first, with Anne and Sarah, accidentally witnessed by Abigail. During a party with several members of court, Anne watches Sarah drink and dance with Lord High Treasurer Robert Harley and Colonel Samuel Masham. Maybe jealous, or maybe unsettled by Sarah’s exertion of control over these respected men, Anne yells for the festivities to cease. Sarah wheels Anne in her wheelchair back to her room, where she sits on her lap and they kiss until Anne instructs Sarah to “fuck” her. She does, as the camera focuses on Abigail watching, surprised, and sneaking out of the room unnoticed.

The second scene is between Anne and Abigail. It begins early in the day, Abigail is sent to see the Queen and falls asleep nude in her bed. Anne finds her there, and promptly orders her out. She dresses and leaves. In the middle of the night, suffering from an attack of gout, Anne sends for Abigail, who arrives to rub her legs. Slowly and deliberately, without any explicit request or invitation, or any sort of foreplay Anne may have had with Sarah, Abigail and Anne have sex. But the lack of request isn’t an exertion or act of domination: it’s a power play. Anne wants to be desired, and when she doesn’t have to demand desire, when Abigail wants it more than Anne, she feels desirable. She feels powerful even though Abigail wields all the power in this moment.

But sex isn’t the definitive factor of this love triangle. What steers Anne to Abigail and away from Sarah isn’t just her kindness, it’s one moment of true understanding. When Abigail is first sent to the Queen’s room in lieu of Sarah, she compliments her bunnies in cages by her bed. Anne, who just seconds before was upset with Sarah’s absence, is suddenly happy. Abigail holds one of the bunnies, and Anne tells her that she’s celebrating that bunny’s birthday, and she has seventeen bunnies because she lost seventeen children. As she says this, teary eyed, Abigail begins to cry as well: before they sit down to play with them together.

Not long after, Sarah makes a snarky comment in passing about the bunnies: a clear unintentional misunderstanding of their meaning to Anne. Sarah calls her “childish”, something easy to believe about Anne in the early chapters of The Favourite. Her bunnies, her overeating, grand presents to Sarah and lack of knowledge of the status of her own country’s war is superficially a side effect of being spoiled royalty. Her extravagant lifestyle is compensating for what she lacks, what she’s lost: her lack of knowledge is due to being thrust into power.

After Sarah finds them naked and asleep in bed together, she confronts Abigail. When confronted, Abigail explains herself by saying “you know how forceful the Queen is”, however her lies don’t work this time, and Sarah dismisses her from the palace. In order to stay, Abigail takes a book and slams it against her face until her nose bleeds, and parks herself outside Anne’s room to cry until she notices. The next time we see them, Abigail is officially the Queen’s Lady of the Bedchamber. Sarah argues this decision, an argument promptly ended by Anne’s declaration: “I like it when her tongue is inside me.”.

Sarah’s convinced this is merely an infatuation Anne has engaged with only to make her jealous, something she’s done to bring Sarah’s attention away from her involvement in politics back to her. She’s afraid, not of Sarah’s social prowess, but of how much she seems to enjoy it: and suddenly now, there’s an ulterior motive made clear to her relationship with Sarah, and Abigail seems only to be kind and somewhat pitiful.

Abigail may be tenuous and pitiful on the outside, but she is ruthless. Emotionless, as steeled on the inside as Sarah fronts to be on the outside: though Sarah is ruled by emotion. Sarah is fighting her way back to Anne after the disruption of Abigail out of love and friendship. Sarah is fearful for what Abigail would do to Anne, for what she is unsure Abigail could do to Anne. For all of her intimidation and seemingly power-hungry behaviors, Sarah will do anything for her country, for her husband and for Anne. Abigail will do anything, including causing herself bodily harm, to amass the power of a queen.

The Favourite is in many ways a classic persona-swap in the power arc of Sarah and Abigail. The persona swap is a sub-genre of film in which two female characters come in contact with each other and in the end find their personas interchanged: most famously used in Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film, Persona. In the beginning, Abigail is powerless: kind and empathetic. Sarah is powerful: dismissive and controlling. As Abigail rises in the Queen’s ranks, her kindness fades, her acts are less endearing as they seemed at first. She’s two-faced, selfish, uncaring: an unloving liar, a “disloyal little bitch”. As Sarah is replaced by Abigail, her intentions become more clear. Earlier in the film, while fighting a nasty bout of gout, Anne recalls how she and Sarah first met: an act of kindness that blossomed into a friendship. With every move Abigail makes that endears her to Anne, this story is mirrored. The recollection keeps Sarah from becoming an enemy, as there is this deep humanity set in their relationship. As Sarah loses more and more power, her hard exterior softens. In an act of desperation, she threatens the Queen with their old letters: an ultimatum between Sarah and Abigail. But Anne does nothing, maybe calling her bluff and trusting Sarah would never do something so vile to her, or maybe out of a pure loss of care. Anne dismisses her, and Sarah is left weeping outside the Queen’s door: telling her that she “will not lie. That is love.”.

And in the final scene, that line, “I will not lie. That is love.”, ringing through the hallways as Abigail entertains herself with the bunnies as the Queen dozes, every single lie is floating in the air, and Abigail--thinking she’s alone, isn’t really Abigail. She isn’t kind, unassuming or vulnerable. She presses her foot down hard on that small bunny until it squeals: just for the fun of it. It’s worse than a betrayal, worse than anything Sarah would have ever done, because Sarah could never have lied like this. It’s an act of malice, a showcase of the depth of Abigail’s manipulation and exploitation. And Anne sees it all. She yells for her to rub her leg, and wordlessly, in those final moments, it’s anger and regret and sadness: fear, exposure and loathing as bunnies flood the frame, drowning out everything.