That New Movie About Queen Anne of England Is Inaccurate … But True

Culture Watch

Frank Palmeri is Professor of English at the University of Miami and author of State of Nature, Stages of Society: Enlightenment Conjectural History and Modern Social Discourse.


The Favourite—the new film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos about the reign of Queen Anne of England (r. 1701-1714)—is a profound and successful work of political imagination that nevertheless depends on several serious historical inaccuracies. It is unusually truthful about the everyday workings of politics, at least as people tend to see the matter today and saw it also in Anne’s day. This is especially true of the film’s emphasis, underplayed in most historical accounts, on the use of sex in pursuit of self-interest as what determines political decisions, from the trivial to the most consequential such as those concerning war and peace. Anchoring its success are impeccable performances by the actors in the principal roles: Rachel Weisz (Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough); Emma Stone (Abigail Masham); and the stunningly human Olivia Colman (Queen Anne). 

But first, consider the historical errors. The most jarring and inconsequential of these are the silly anachronistic dances, which combine disco moves and voguing with Cossack squat kicks. In the same category is the depiction of Anne’s court as a den of Neronian decadence and grotesquerie: in one extended sequence, Members of Parliament throw oranges at a fleshy dodging jester wearing nothing but a giant red-haired wig. 

In its depiction of the comedy of cruelty among callous aristocrats, the scene echoes the criticism and toleration of the brutal sensualism of the ancient Romans in Fellini Satyricon(1969). This is not the only time that Lanthimos takes a page from another film or novel. But Anne’s court was not a palace of Neronian decadence; it was not even the cynical, libertine court of her uncle Charles II. Her reign was a time of fine design in furniture and in the poetic couplets of Alexander Pope, and of the sharp imitation of madness in the satiric writings of Jonathan Swift (whom Anne disliked and Sarah hated). 

In a more consequential inaccuracy, the powerful minister Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) steps aside from the orange-throwing party only in order to try to bully Abigail into confiding in him and betraying Sarah. He carries an obligatory knob-headed walking stick and wears an absurdly high light-grey wig, his face whitened by cosmetics that contain lead and his cheeks rouged by cinnabar that contains mercury, looking and talking like a perfect Restoration twerp.  Far from being a shallow fop, in the middle years of Anne’s reign, Harley had been Speaker of the House of Commons and had been finding the center of English politics for almost twenty years, whether from what we would call the Left or the Right, the side of the Whigs or of the Tories. Forty-five years old in 1706, he was four years older than the Queen, not twenty years younger. 

Harley was an antiquarian, a learned man, a friend of Swift and Pope, as well as a skillful political tactician and shaper of early public opinion; he employed both Defoe and Swift to help gain public acceptance for his policies. His collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, Tudor texts, and more recent pamphlets later known as the Harleian collection, formed the core of the British Museum, now the British Library, and is a cultural treasure of the first rank. Lanthimos has good grounds for diminishing the powerful upper-class men of England, regarding them as superficial and thoughtlessly abusive. But we should note that Harley’s character in the film, while it works as a satiric caricature, is inaccurate and misleading.

The most consequential unhistorical element in the film is Abigail’s supposed poisoning of her cousin Sarah, which leads to Sarah’s being dragged through a forest caught in her horse’s stirrups and inexplicably confined in a brothel for about a week after that (as though the fiery sharp-tongued Duchess were an early version of Richardson’s famously long-suffering and self-sacrificing Clarissa).  

Although there is no evidence for such an episode, one can see why the screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have recourse to the device. It shows that Abigail was as dangerous in her own way as Sarah; she must have had something steely in her character to so successfully supplant Anne’s brilliant, fierce, and vigilant friend since childhood.  

It is in the relations among Sarah, Abigail, and Anne, that the inaccuracies cease to detract, but begin to add to the complexities. Take the distance between the ages of the three women. In the film, the Queen appears to be a physical wreck in her fifties who can barely walk, and Abigail a blooming and beautiful twenty-something. In fact, the historical Anne and Abigail were the same age, while Sarah was five years older than they. 

But it makes sense to portray Abigail, Sarah’s impoverished cousin, at first as a vulnerable young naif who follows Sarah’s example to become a skilled political player and the betrayer of her mentor. Her coming victory is signaled when, following Sarah’s instructions, she finally shoots a pigeon on the wing and the blood of the bird spatters across Sarah’s face. On this telling, the story of relations between Sarah and Abigail is an eighteenth-century precursor of All about Eve(1950). 

Sarah herself is portrayed in an unusually positive light. Historically, she was notoriously strong-willed and sharp-tongued. In other versions of her story such as the fine play Queen Anne(2015) by Kate Glover, she lost Anne’s friendship because the Queen finally reached a point where she could no longer tolerate Sarah’s impertinence in ordering her about (she once famously told the Queen to “Shut up” in public). 

Lanthimos’s film allows us to see Sarah as at least the equal and perhaps the superior in political intelligence of the official members of the ministry—Godolphin, Harley, and certainly her husband. More than any other character, the film assigns her conventionally masculine pursuits—shooting, riding, making decisions, persuading. She does not, of course, participate in the silly entertainments that occupy the effeminate courtiers, including Harley.  

Sarah is thus presented as a largely sympathetic character. Her acerbic wit, which at times approaches the sadistic, appears in retrospect to have been well-intentioned plain-speaking, at least in relation to Anne, by contrast with what proves to be Abigail’s insincere flattery of the Queen. Moreover, the poisoning leaves Sarah with an ugly scar across her cheek, which she covers by wearing a scarf as an eye-patch, arousing sympathy for the loss of her beauty. 

We come to feel that although Sarah domineers, manipulates, and even tries to blackmail the Queen, she has been largely honest with her, whereas Abigail’s soft-spoken soothing is only manipulating the Queen, and Abigail’s sexual ministrations to Anne come to seem merely mechanical and self-interested, whereas Sarah’s grow out of a long and complex relationship stretching back to childhood and early adolescence.

In the story of Anne, an historical addition proves to be not a liability or an excusable alteration but a major strength of the film. There is no record that Anne kept seventeen rabbits (or even one) in her living quarters. However as she explains in a crucial scene, she has a rabbit for each of her seventeen pregnancies (sixteen ended in miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant death; one child—a son—died aged 11). “Each time you lose one,” she concludes, “you lose a part of yourself.” Abigail seems deeply moved as she listens to Anne’s account; by contrast, Sarah has forthrightly declared her dislike of rabbits.      

Anne did not have the character of a queen: she was weak and irresolute, physically unattractive, gout-ridden, and obese. But Lanthimos enables viewers to discover that there is something admirable in Anne’s character also. Just as she is England’s only queen, so being a childless queen is her only life, not chosen but imposed on her. Her unfitness for her high position then becomes one of the constraints that operate against women of all ranks in this society. Although Anne can be juvenile, moody, and capricious, she comes to understand and even accept her position.

She sees through not only Sarah and her manipulations, but also her final favorite when she perceives how Abigail really regards the Queen’s rabbits. In the final scene, Anne treats Abigail the way that Abigail has treated one of her rabbits.  Anne realizes that a queen, like a king, can (as Francis Bacon said) have no friends, and we can understand that a further empty space has opened up in Anne with this realization.    

In most ways, the film works as a satire. There is no admirable, normative character, except perhaps Anne when she understands that she cannot escape her life—the losses and disabilities for which she is not responsible. The film satirically overturns the presumptions of the earlier time and the present, by presenting all three of the principal women as exceeding their male contemporaries—Sarah in her will, determination and wit, Abigail in her quiet scheming, and Anne in her lonely self-understanding at the end.

It is noteworthy that the film avoids homophobic satire of the Queen for having sexual relations with her female favorites. The tradition of English kings having male favorites goes back to Edward II, then forward through James I (Anne’s great-grandfather), Charles I (her grandfather), and William III (her brother-in-law). The film presents the monarch’s having same-sex relations with a favorite as nothing remarkable, the only difference being that in this case the monarch is a woman. 

Nevertheless, in its predominantly satiric vision, The Favourite resonates with the contemporary moment in expressing the view that all politics is built on base self-interest, and that it is all corrupt. This view fittingly echoes the perspective of the gossipy “secret histories” of the early eighteenth century—like The New Atalantis (1709) by Delarivier Manley, which tells how a handsome adolescent recognizable as John Churchill (later the Duke of Marlborough) earned his crucial early nest egg by providing sexual services to an older, discarded, but very wealthy mistress of Charles II. Under a thin veil of allegory, these popular narratives considered all public political behavior as surface phenomena to be explained by underlying personal, almost always sexual, connections. In the view of these narratives, sexual relations among those in the political class are always instrumental, like Abigail’s with the Queen and her husband in the film.   

But although all politics may be tainted, that does not mean that all courses of action are equally unwise or immoral. Although the film does not go on to make this point, Anne made the correct moral decision when she replaced Godolphin and Marlborough with Harley, who then negotiated an end to the fruitless, decade-long War of Spanish Succession. The film could have reached for a more complex historical vision by at least gesturing toward the satire of the sickening brutality of pointless wars in Gulliver’s Travels(1726), written in the decade following Anne’s death by Harley’s ally Swift. 

Sarah, Marlborough, and the Whigs would have been content to carry on an interminable war against France, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of more deaths and maimings, for they were doing quite nicely as war-profiteers, like many of today’s giant technology and security companies. Even in a world of ubiquitous political corruption, it is important to choose the less corrupt courses of action, the ones that cause less needless death and suffering. 

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