Being queen isn’t just about crowns and crumpets, you know.
It’s about rabbits, too—17 of them, in Queen Anne’s case. She has one for every child she bore and lost. When she’s feeling particularly down (which, it must be said, is most of the time), she allows the royal rabbits out of their cages to hop around the royal bedchamber.
Being queen is also about racing lobsters: What else are you going to do in some of the palace’s less-used but no-less-palatial rooms? It’s about sumptuous feasts and ceremonial fetes and sorrow and fear and pain. And indescribable pain in her legs.
Finally, being queen is about Sarah: Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. She’s Anne’s strength, her support, her secret lover.
Is it about ruling England? Not for Anne. Sarah knows so much more about those things. Sarah has such good ideas. Let Sarah set the policy. Let Sarah control the country’s purse. Let Sarah wage war with France, even if she has to slap an unpopular tax on landowners to do so. In the Queen’s name, of course.
Such is the world that young Abigail steps into when she arrives at court. She’s of noble blood and is, in fact, a cousin of Sarah’s. But her father bet the girl in a card game when she was just 15, and it’s been no bed of roses since. She’s a nothing now—no title, no fortune, no prospects. Abigail comes to court to beg for a job. And in a moment of generosity, Sarah gives her one.
“Go back to that gouty old slattern Mrs. Meg and tell her I said to give you quarters, food and something to do,” she tells Abigail. “Take your flies with you.”
Not the most auspicious of beginnings, certainly. And the scullery work that Mrs. Meg gives Abigail does not bode well for her prospects.
But if there’s one thing that Abigail excels at, it’s spotting opportunity. And when she sees how much Queen Anne suffers from periodic pains in her legs, she instinctively knows what to do. Surrepticiously, she leaves the castle, picks some herbs and mixes them into a salve. Then she finagles her way into the queen’s chambers and spreads the salve over Anne’s inflamed, agonized limbs.
Sarah’s furious when she learns that Abigail invaded her—er, the queen’s domain. She orders the girl beaten. But when Sarah discovers the salve actually helped, she has a change of heart. Instead of sending her farther into the bowels of the castle, Sarah promotes Abigail to be Sarah’s very own servant.
“You shall not overstep again,” Sarah cautions her.
Abigail promises she won’t. Perhaps she even means it.
But the girl knows opportunity when she sees it. And when she learns of Sarah’s and Anne’s illicit relationship, she sees a golden one right in front of her face.
For the first part of the movie, Abigail presents herself as someone noble in bearing, even if her station in life has been greatly diminished. When her father lost her in that card game, she insists she tried to honor him throughout the impossibly horrific relationship that ensued. And she’s initially grateful for everything that Sarah’s done for her. When the duplicitous lordly politician Robert Harley tries to enlist Abigail as a spy, she initially tries to rebuff him.
“Lady Marlborough has been good to me,” she says. “She saved me. I will not breech her confidence.”
But as Abigail’s own ambitions grow, she becomes much less sympathetic, and we begin to see the cold, hard, equally duplicitous Sarah in a somewhat more favorable light. Setting aside the sexual nature of her relationship with Anne for the moment, she seems to sincerely care for the Queen. She’s not just an advisor and amorous bed partner: She’s Anne’s closest friend, and she warns Anne of Abigail’s preening flattery.
“You wish me to lie to you,” Sarah says to Anne when Anne hints she’d like her to be more like Abigail. “Sometimes you look like a badger, and I will tell you. I will not lie. That is love.”
And Queen Anne? Well, she really loves her rabbits.
We hear a reference to Mary Magdalene and a (horribly out of place) reference to God. But otherwise, The Favourite stands out for its lack of spiritual content. Indeed, the film seems to stress the court’s corrupt, pervasive amorality, where most every decision is based either on pleasure or power.
The Favourite is a story about power and sex, and how one is used to get to the other. At its core, of course, is the “love” triangle featuring Queen Anne and her two “favourites,” Sarah and Abigail.
Overt nudity in these relationships is rare. One scene seems meant to titilate, when Abigail visits Anne’s bedchamber in a flimsy nightgown (spilling off her shoulder; we see the side of her breast as well) and is later discovered in bed with Anne. (An exposed breast is visible.)
Sexual interplay, though, is more frequently suggested and often in extraordinarily ribald ways, even if the camera isn’t zooming in on anyone’s privates. Sarah and Anne kiss passionately as Sarah sits on Anne’s lap in her wheelchair. Anne asks Abigail to rub her hurting legs: Abigail does so … and more, with Anne’s facial expressions indicating her sexual ecstacy. Abigail suggests to Anne several times that she finds the queen desirable. “If I were a man, I would ravish you,” she says.
Abigail’s own past sexual experiences sound horrific. As mentioned, her dad lost her in a card game when she was just 15 to a “balloon-shaped German.” (Her father was so heartbroken, Abigail dryly notes, that he “took off into the forest with nothing but a scullery maid and a dozen bottles for solace.”) She describes the winner’s anatomy and how she often escaped having sex with him. It seems she’s been treated as a sexual plaything ever since: “I guess all the rapes were the hardest,” she says. When a man makes a pass at her, she assumes it’ll lead to physical intimacy, if not the emotional variety.
“Have you come to seduce me or rape me?” She coquettishly asks.
“I am a gentleman,” he responds.
“So rape, then,” she says dismally.
We see her manhandled on many an occasion, and Sarah invites a man to “take a bite” of her. Two scenes involving Abigail and men visually allude to masturbation. (We see and hear movements and sounds, though nudity is avoided.) One scene in a brothel involves a man and a woman (mostly clothed) having sex. Other scenes there include exposed breasts and backsides.
A corpulent man dances naked (though his hands cover his privates) as other men pelt him with fruit. Anne and Sarah take a mud bath together. We see people kiss and hear crude references to various sex acts. Sarah threatens to publicize Anne’s passionate letters to her. Paintings picture bare-breasted women.
Someone is poisoned, falls off her horse and is gravely injured as she’s dragged by the steed—her face bloodied and bruised. Several days pass before she’s able to get out of bed and leave her place of refuge.
Sarah enjoys shooting birds and invites Abigail to join her. Several birds are apparently shot and killed, and one splatters blood all over Sarah’s face and clothes. (Sarah seems to threaten Abigail with a gun at one juncture, too.)
A suitor/would-be rapist assaults Abigail in a forest. They spend what seem to be several minutes in wrestling before Abigail pretends to give herself up to the man, then knees him in the crotch instead.
Someone smacks herself in the face with a book, drawing blood. Abigail’s pushed off a walkway. Sarah slaps Anne. Someone steps on one of Anne’s rabbits sadistically, causing the animal distress (but not, apparently, doing any lasting damage). People threaten each other using violent descriptors.
England is at war with France, and we hear a lot of discussion about that conflict (and how to pay for it). Sarah’s husband leaves for the front lines during the movie, and the audience is left to wonder how much she truly worries about his safety. As a scullery maid, Abigail’s hands are burned by lye—a mean prank pulled on her by another maid.
Characters utter six c-words and perhaps twice as many f-words. Other than those nuclear-powered vulgarities, though, profanity elsewhere is fairly light: One s-word and a one or two uses each of “a–” and “b–ch.” God’s name is misused once.
Someone is poisoned. People drink a lot, often to excess. People drink so much, in fact, that they sometimes get sick. Speaking of which …
All three main characters vomit at some point during the movie, sometimes into nearby vases.
When Abigail arrives, she’s immediately pushed into a pool of excrement—horribly sullied and completely reeking when she first meets Sarah. We hear references to excrement elsewhere, too.
We probably don’t need to belabor this point, but most of the characters here behave atrociously. Women lie and scheme and plot and backstab. Men leer and smear and philander and behave horrifically as well.
“I’m on my side,” Abigail tells an unsavory nobleman. “Always.”
The Favourite is filled with such selfish sides, and hardly anyone ever glances toward the needs of anyone—and I mean anyone—else. Noble deeds among these nobles? Lofty ideals in these elevated stations? Nary a one can be found in this rich, gloppy, gelatinous stew. This story is all about sex and power, pleasure and greed. It’s as amoral as an Andy Warhol rager, as ethically bankrupt as an Enron yacht.
All this is by design, of course. The movie’s makers weren’t out to create heroes here—just a bevy of strangely sympathetic players out to further their own ends.
Yes, the writing’s crisp, and yes, the acting’s exquisite: I get why the film racked up 10 Oscar nominations. But when it comes to the story itself, it seems as though its main appeal is that of a prurient peepshow, or perhaps poking around in a mason jar of what used to be fruit that’s now several months past its expiration date.
The Favourite may indeed be a favorite with secular critics and Academy voters. For me? Not so much.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.