Hundreds of years ago, a “favourite” was the close companion of a ruler or a person in power. Favourites were often friends, allies, royal advisors, and at times even lovers. The relationships enjoyed by these companions, and their shadowy roles in royal history, come into focus in the latest film from Yorgos Lanthimos. The director of THE LOBSTER and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER takes a swing at a period piece with THE FAVOURITE.
The royal drama focuses on the reign of Queen Anne during the early 18th century. Instead of focusing on Anne’s fight for power, THE FAVOURITE centers on her relationships with Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham, cousins contending for the role of court favourite. Sarah and Abigail battled for attention, using lies and betrayal to curry favor. There was even a rumored love triangle between Queen Anne and the cousins.
Here’s the strange history of THE FAVOURITE.
A Forgotten Queen
When you think of memorable queens, Victoria, Marie Antoinette, and Elizabeth I are probably some of the first names that come to mind. Queen Anne doesn’t usually make the list of noteworthy names — but she should. The twelve years between when she took power in 1702 and her death in 1714 featured several massive historical events.
Under the Acts of Union in 1707, the kingdoms of England and Scotland united to form Great Britain. There was also the War of the Spanish Succession, which caused tension between the two political parties, the Tories and the Whigs. Anne tended to side with the Tories, which left Sarah conflicted and complicated their relationship down the line. Sarah might have been using the Queen to fight for her own political views.
Surrounded By Influencers
Queen Anne was never considered one of the most intellectual royals in power. As the trailer for THE FAVOURITE suggests, she might not have been up to the task of wielding her power. There have been long-standing suspicions that others were pulling the strings of power during her reign.
One major suspect is Sarah Churchill. Anne suffered numerous health issues and was known for irritable behavior. So Sarah often influenced Anne’s mindset when it came to politics. And she wasn’t the only one. The film features a whole host of historical figures who had parts to play in Queen Anne’s story.
Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne of Great Britain. Rachel Weisz is Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and a favourite of Queen Anne. Emma Stone, meanwhile, is Sarah’s cousin Abigail Masham, who comes to court and quickly wins Anne’s attention, creating conflict with Sarah.
Mark Gatiss is John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, an English soldier. He’s married to Sarah Churchill, while Joe Alwyn is Samuel Masham, a courtier to Queen Anne and husband of Abigail. Nicholas Hoult plays Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, a statesman who eventually served as Queen Anne’s chief minister. At one point he switched political parties from Whig to Tory. Finally, James Smith is Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphin, the First Lord of the Treasury.
A Mysterious Love Triangle
Queen Anne could be timid, which often made her a target of the rest of the court. People in the halls of power can be bloodthirsty. They often took advantage of Anne’s lack of confidence. Anne needed positive reinforcement, and clung to anyone who fed her attention, especially Sarah and Abigail. But there can be only one favourite. So the power struggle between cousins was intense, and eventually bloody.
The fight to be Anne’s favourite was also rumored to be more than just political companionship. There was an intimation of a series of love affairs. THE FAVOURITE puts that love triangle front and center. Actor Nicholas Hoult commented on the three starring women in an interview with Variety:
“The dynamic between the characters they play is so wonderful because it’s so intricate and difficult to understand exactly who’s wanting what from this love-power struggle, and it’s just wonderful to watch and see.”
Some historians believe that Queen Anne was gay, but her lifestyle was long a taboo topic. Lanthimos jumped at the chance to explore the rarely-discussed version of what went on behind the scenes of the 18th century. Knowing the director, whose films always have a blackly comic streak, THE FAVOURITE will leaven its serious story with moments of uncomfortable comedy even as it finds the true humanity in Anne, Sarah, and Abigail.
THE FAVOURITE hits theaters on November 23.