So what did I think of The Favourite?
First I wish you to follow me on my journey to the movie. I live near Newcastle-Under-Lyme. The Vue cinema is in a mall. As you go in, on the wall, is a mural of famous figures from the movies. When I say they are overwhelmingly men, I mean at a ratio of about 100 to 4. Luke Skywalker is up there, Princess Leia is not. You get the picture.
I watched an advert for Polo Cars which talked about how we want to be active, and showed all men, doing things, driving the cars, expect for a woman sitting by a pram. I watched trailers so bland and male they passed me by. We found out later that Colette, a movie I am eagerly anticipating, won’t be coming, and that Mortal Engines (three female leads) was there for just one week (we had to drive to Stafford to see it).
There is a pattern to this. It’s pretty transparent.
Which is why The Favourite was such a joy to watch. It wasn’t just that it had female leads, it’s that this was a movie in which the female gaze dominated. I had worried a great deal that it would be an excuse for the straight male ‘I love lesbianism as long as I get to watch’ gaze, but it wasn’t like that at all.
First let’s clear one thing away: it didn’t bother me that they shortened time lines, killed off George of Denmark, used denim and black and white for the fashion etc etc etc. In some ways the deliberate decision to leave historical accuracy behind made it easier to suspend my doubts and go along with the confection. The wigs were just splendid after all. Any 18th century man would have wanted one of those wigs. My only historical quibble is that the way the lines about the threat of revolution were delivered, I think the actors had forgotten that some of them had lived through two revolutions, and that Anne would have grown up on stories of her grandfather’s sorry end (however adulated as Charles the Martyr). Anne is not in that moment a frail woman being frightened with extravagant tales and threats, she really needed to be a Queen who knows exactly how shaky her family’s grip on the throne is.
Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara keep the story resolutely on the needs and desires of each of the three women. It’s a scary world and each of them needs to survive. Although Lady Sarah Churchill is manipulative, the purpose of her manipulations is in the service of a grand narrative of patriotism and politics, it never descends to being merely for her man.
Abigail Hill gets more back story here than she has in real life, and it’s fairly bawdy in a way she’d probably resent but again, it’s not used to generate prurience, but instead to demonstrate the vulnerability of women , the prurience of the men around her, and the need Hill has to be secure. Hill responds by acquiring ambition so the ambition is rooted in her needs.
Perhaps the one disappointment is that the breach with Anne with both women is portrayed and personal whereas in real life it was a lot more about politics in both cases and it would have been nice to see Abigail emerge as the political animal she was.
A magnificent script was carried by magnificent performances and once again I regret that the Oscars have no category for Best Ensemble. A lot of women’s pictures are ensemble movies—they don’t have a hero, they have a hero-group—and often end up losing out as a consequence. But I think Olivia Colman is the standout for me. She depicts age, pain, indignity… with great dignity. She shows what we rarely see, a disabled woman who still loves physically; woman who is aware that her choices are constrained and that she has power but not autonomy.
But what of the lesbian relationships? The truth is we really have no idea what happened between Anne and Sarah Churchill. We do know that the slightly older Sarah Churchill was a bit of a bully as a teenager in that way that smart female teens sometimes are, wanting to help their irritating but not very bright friend who has a higher social status but in some ways (when they met) fewer expectations. The construction of their friendship as far as we can tell encouraged psychosocial dependency. But here’s the thing: if a man and a woman had a relationship that close, where they used nicknames and talked of each other’s physical caresses, no amount of alternative marital connections would have prevented historians assuming adultery (see the speculations around Henrietta Maria, Henry Jermyn and the paternity of Charles II). Furthermore (and one of the useful gaps for those of us writing queer historical fiction, marriage and the production of heirs was a job. It didn’t preclude other interests as long as you were careful.