The Favourite director Yorgos Lanthimos and writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara used sparing historical details to create an 18th century love triangle around England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her close friend Lady Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), and the scullery maid Abigail Masham (Emma Stone). The latter drives a wedge between the queen and her confidante, as the young chambermaid uses her charms to social climb toward the queen’s bedroom, and the result is a ruthless study in oneupsmanship that is by turns hilarious, unsettling, and irresistible to watch.
But how much is true? Emma Donoghue, the Dublin-born playwright and historian who was Oscar-nominated herself for scripting Room, here gathers the threads and explains why Lanthimos has honored history by taking liberties in creating a hybrid formula that can breathe life into future films on palace politics. The Favourite is up for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress for Colman and Best Supporting Actress for Weisz and Stone. Queen Anne has long been a mystery, and Donoghue’s reassessment of the monarch is most enlightening.
DEADLINE: We see many historical films on monarchs that are dry and dusty. Tell me why The Favourite was an exception.
DONOGHUE: This is a really basic point but we really shouldn’t overlook it: the choice of subject is brilliant. Because you would expect that every member of the royal family since William the Conqueror has been thoroughly done. But Queen Anne actually hasn’t. She’s been a totally despised and neglected monarch in British history. They go on and on and on about how fat she was, as if that means she was feeble and uninteresting. So she has almost never been taken seriously as a subject of drama. I think this film is absolutely original in taking an obscure episode in British history and putting it front and center and showing how fascinating and unprecedented it was.
I see The Favourite as part of a new wave of period drama, which casts off all the fuddy duddy protocols about how people spoke so politely back then. This film is drawing on real details of British history, but it’s not tied down by them. You could link it to some earlier ones like Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, or Jane Campion’s The Piano, so it’s not the only period drama that’s ever done this. But it’s rare to see all the elements come together in such a uniquely dramatic and funny way. I still don’t know quite how they did it. I’ve seen this film twice and have been mulling over it. It feels so unconstrained by the history and it shows no sign that it took 20 years to make. Doesn’t it seem like somebody had this brilliant idea two years ago and just threw themselves into it? There’s no sense that that script has been worked over, on and off, over the past 20 years. It feels so fresh.
DEADLINE: Do you have an idea how it evolved over that 20-year span? Two decades ago, would they have made a romantic love triangle between the queen and two women? It does seem a perfect movie for this moment of inclusion…
DONOGHUE: We’re in a moment of new honesty about relations between the sexes, about sex as power play, and also about same-sex relationships. So even though the endless delays in making this film must have been heartbreaking, I don’t wish that it had come out any earlier. Because now is the right moment for The Favourite to find itself bang central in the cultural conversation. I can’t quite see how Deborah Davis managed to write this script 20 years ago. You certainly could have written a novel like this back then, but the mainstream film world was not ready for this. It absolutely is, now. You can tell Yorgos Lanthimos didn’t care that this happened to be about same-sex relationships. He said, this is about women and power, and he just went for it with a kind of unselfconscious enthusiasm. There’s no pleading or explaining. It’s just completely unapologetic and extraordinary. We’ve never seen scenes like these before. An aged, crippled queen, extracting sexual services from a variety of beautiful women.
DEADLINE: You are a historian. When you see the imagery of racing ducks, and the 17 rabbits meant to signify all the children Anne bore and lost, what’s your feeling about framing this on history, and then inventing narrative details?
DONOGHUE: I’m entirely in favor of what they did. The funny thing is, I came out of the theater feeling, OK, most of those details were fictional and yet, they are deeply true. They didn’t just make up things randomly. They made up things that represented the psychological truth of the situation. I happen to be very familiar with the Queen Anne material and I can tell you The Favourite is absolutely accurate about the tension of that triangle, and about the centrality of women in Queen Anne’s life. She had a husband and was very fond of him, and he died. But the people she got excited about, the people she argued about, and with, and for, they were all women. It’s like the whole film is a feverish dream replay of what really happened. It’s as if Queen Anne, having lost her 17 children, had a nightmare about 17 rabbits. I found it deeply and painfully true, even though so many details were invented.
Here’s another good example: the herbs. We know almost nothing about the real Abigail Masham. We don’t know if she was young or attractive. There’s one detail in the sources: apparently she was good with herbs. The filmmakers spun this into an entire subplot. You’ve got Emma Stone riding out to the woods to get these herbs, spreading poultices on Queen Anne’s gouty legs. Then you’ve got her poisoning Sarah. Again, no evidence in the source material, but Sarah and Abigail had fights that were just that bitter. So the poison is a perfect concrete detail to express the larger emotional truth.
I’ve never actually seen a historical film that does this and I think it should be a model for how we proceed in the future, frankly. You can tell they did a huge amount of research to dig up the really interesting details of the day. But then they tied them all together with a kind of dream logic. Here’s another thing. Sarah and John, the Marlboroughs, they had lots of children. But the film decides they are not helpful to this story, and just leaves them out. It’s got a ruthless clarity to it, in not getting lost in the details.
DEADLINE: How about the performances?
DONOGHUE: Like many voters will, I find myself going, Rachel, Emma. Emma, Rachel. It’s cruel to have them in the same category. As for Olivia Colman…I heard a story that Yorgos Lanthimos delayed the film just to get her. She was busy and he said, I won’t proceed without her. That’s one of his strengths as a director. He knows what he wants and refuses to accept substitutes. We’ve seen Olivia Colman do extraordinary work for him before, like in The Lobster. She’s got this amazing ability to play un-glamorous, vulgar and plain, and magnetically interesting at the same time. She manages to be likable even when she’s being petulant and cranky. So in The Favourite, moments where she’s eating cake, vomiting and stuffing in more cake, she holds our attention and even our affection.
One reason the performances are so great is, they were given such rich stuff to work with, and none of these women is the hero or the villain. At different times in the film, you’re rooting for Abigail, for Anne or for Sarah. Sometimes all three in the same scene, like when they’re sitting in their bath of mud. Your sympathies are swiveling between the three of them. We see Abigail change from the perky newcomer, never innocent exactly, but well meaning, right through to being as cynical a power player as Sarah.
DEADLINE: The ending was a punch to the gut — SPOILER ALERT — where Emma Stone’s Abigail thinks she has won her place alongside the queen, and Rachel Weisz’s Sarah goes off with her handsome husband into an adventurous life in exile. Abigail is left to service this queen with her rabbits and swollen, oozing legs. So, who really won? Is there a long history of the underclass doing whatever they had to, to curry favor with those monarchs?
DONOGHUE: You certainly see it with the mistresses of kings. Somebody like Nell Gwyn, mistress to Charles II — she was an orange seller at the theater, which basically meant, sex worker. The brilliance of choosing this subject is, we’ve seen some of the stories before. Like the tough, working class girl working her way up, holding her nose, doing whatever it takes. But we’ve never seen it done before in the context of a queen, and that gives the film such a refreshing modern feel.
One thing I love about writing historical fiction is, you get back before those firm identity categories. If you write a novel set in the 18th century, people may have been feeling guilt, but they weren’t saying, oh, no, that makes me a sexually abnormal person. They just weren’t classifying themselves that way. You can be very cutting-edge queer, by going back before categories like gay and lesbian were established. It’s one reason choosing a historical storyline can allow you to be really, really modern. Because a character like Abigail Masham is not weighed down by, am I a normal woman? She wants hot baths, good food. She’ll do what she must to survive!
DEADLINE: Sarah Churchill’s alliance with Queen Anne was frayed by Abigail, but ultimately her memory in posterity was sullied by Sarah’s memoirs written after the queen’s death. The narrative of Anne being fat and pathetic came from Sarah’s own writing.
DONOGHUE: You’re so right. We know Anne mostly through the bitter writings of an ex. People go on and on about Anne’s coffin and how it was so wide they could barely fit it in the chapel. But I’ve seen a diagram of the footprint of all the royal coffins in that chapel. Anne’s is a bit wider, but only a little bit. Everything people see as pathetic about her has been exaggerated, at least partly because Sarah wrote such malicious things about her. And it was mostly Sarah who was calling Anne a lesbian. She would pay writers to write these malicious ballads and she would write to the queen and say, ooh, I’ve just heard this dreadful ballad about you. She would darkly hint, I’m going to publish your letters. So you would think Sarah would be like, I’d better not draw attention to the fact that we behaved like lovers. But she was the one who was throwing these stones. The whole thing is wildly interesting. Sarah may have believed that what she and the queen had was acceptable because Sarah was quite well born – whereas Abigail was lower class, which made the bond between her and the Queen outrageous, and probably sexual. It’s hard to disentangle the class and gender politics, but the film does a superb job of it.
Here’s another example of something not literally accurate but it rings true in the film: the costumes. In the case of Sarah, I’ve never come across any evidence that she ever wore breeches. But we know some 18th century women occasionally would go to a masquerade in breeches. Sarah’s in breeches for half the film, and nobody questions it. It just fits her character – it’s true, but not on the literal historical level.
DEADLINE: The Favourite and Mary Queen of Scots turned upside down the notion of male-dominated castles. Here, the men who usually ruled were clearly lower in the pecking order and frustrated by it.
DONOGHUE: That leads to the hilarious scene where young Mr. Masham gets dolled up in makeup and that really big wig, trying to suck up to Abigail at the orders of his master, Harley. He clearly hates the makeup and she laughs at him. But the idea of a man putting on lipstick to try and impress a woman so that he can get indirect political power through her, it’s superb. Or that scene where Sarah is at the very door at the Parliament, but she’s not allowed to vote. So all her power is behind the throne, it’s indirect and kind of warped. She can’t be the politician she was born to be, except by trickery. So the relationship between the women and the politics is wonderfully indirect. None of them can actually get a political job, but to see politicians fighting with or fawning over Sarah and Abigail, it’s just hilarious. It’s kind of a really dark joke about the power behind the scenes. You can connect it to a film like Vice, where Cheney is ruling his own master, or the HBO movie Brexit, where the crisis is basically caused by one backroom guy. These are fascinating insider stories about politics, and how so much of it is being decided away from the public eye.
DEADLINE: Anne is historically remembered as being pathetic and portly. It is sad to imagine she was pregnant 17 times, and the children kept dying.
DONOGHUE: One lived to age 10.
DEADLINE: Imagine the toll all that took on her body, emotionally and physically, including the heartbreak of being unable to produce an heir to the throne.
DONOGHUE: The latest thinking on Queen Anne’s health is, she had this immune system problem which could have been solved with aspirin. And aspirin existed, but they just didn’t know it would have helped her keep her babies, which breaks my heart. The Favourite is quite brilliant in that it only takes up the story long after the 17 are dead, so we don’t see her go through any of that. They’re just evoked through those rabbits.
One thing that shows Lanthimos’ brilliant direction is, all those different elements come together so beautifully, and a real sense of a guiding vision. Even the music. There’s that piece at the start, where Anne is hurting badly as her legs are being worked on, and there’s a stabbing violin track and it’s as if the music is the surges of pain. Or the choreography — that pop dance they do. It’s not accurate to the time, but it captures the idea of Anne feeling madly jealous of all these sexual and mobile people getting to be in the spotlight. Every time they make an anachronistic choice, they’re not doing it to get a laugh or because they’re lazy. They’re doing it because it represents a deeper truth about the situation.
DEADLINE: How much of a milestone is The Favourite compared to palace politics films of say the last decade or two? Will it be a stylistic touchstone for handling dry and dusty historical material?
DONOGHUE: I think it will be a hugely influential film: rooted in history but more committed to drama and art. I suspect we will see a whole wave of films that will be compared to The Favourite in this way. But very few of them will have such a perfect subject. The Queen Anne story has been right there, in the history books all these years, but it has been so ignored, especially because the relationships between women have been assumed to be banal, sexless, comprised of backstairs squabbles. Lots of people will be cursing themselves that they never made a film like this. Huge credit has to go to Deborah Davis for writing this screenplay 20 years ago and seeing there was an extraordinary story to be told. The Favourite is going to be a model for a period drama that tears up the rule book.