The Favourite: How important is Historical Accuracy in a Period Movie?

Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is on my Top Ripples 2018 list. I added it in after I’d already posted my annual wrap. I judged it mainly on the basis of its aesthetics, film as an art form, the acting, cinematography, and overall styling.

I went into the theatre with no prior knowledge of the historical details. So, with no a priori burden as a fact-checker, I just let my curiosity lead me, and soon I was transported to a very different world in a very different time. The Favourite shows us Queen Anne’s court in early 18th C. England, where the Whigs fight against the Tories, where men wear wigs and stay indoor cheering on ducks racing or hurling fruits at a naked, good-humoured and heavy-set man (easy target) who finally slips on the fruity and juicy floor, while women play with guns and shoot pigeons outdoor, and pretty good aims they are too, both with the pigeons and in narrowly missing the human target, just as a warning.

the favourite

The film is all about the relational triangle between three women. The trio of actors are undoubtedly the distinguished assets of the production: Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz her intimate confidante Lady Sarah Churchill, and Emma Stone as Abigail, Sarah’s cousin and novice chambermaid, soon the new favourite of the Queen’s. Abigail is a quick study; in no time they are all drawn into a three-way tug-of-war. Although initially coerced by the leader of the Tories, Robert Harley (A wigged and made up Nicholas Hoult, long way from About A Boy, 2002), to spy on Anne and Sarah, who sides with the Whigs, Abigail later learns to use Harley’s influence as leverage to her advantage.

Against the historic backdrop of the war with France, the film is an intriguing look into a royal court and partisan politics, but the most meaty story is the power struggles among the three women, and how conflicting dynamics, sexual politics, emotional manipulation, jealousy, and treachery will ultimately consume all. If you’re on an existential quest for meaning, look elsewhere. This film is pure entertainment, irreverent, surreal, sumptuous in set design, costumes, make-up, and spot-on in editing and acting; but it’s not for the serious meaning seeker.

The Cinematography effectively augments the overall aesthetics. Director of photography (DP) Robbie Ryan used a fisheye lens and a roving camera to sweep wide-angled shots, giving us a lively, larger but distorted view, like looking into a fishbowl, which is totally compatible with the genre, for to say The Favourite is a comedy is an understatement. The film is more a farce, and at times outrageous to the point of gratuitous sensationalism. The effect is acerbic sarcasm.

But there are plenty pleasing things to look at as the camera captures the sumptuous set design. The fluid, almost 360º camerawork pans like an all knowing eye. That in itself is ironic, for hidden agendas are ubiquitous among the characters. Shot in 35 mm film, Ryan utilizes natural lighting, and in the dark, a single candle light, all work to serve up a classy, Rembrandt-like impression.

The music too, plays a prominent role in establishing the overall classical tone, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel… yet with a splash of contemporary touch as well, like, Elton John’s “Skyline Pigeon” on harpsichord, and piano. Incidentally, in a few scenes, a long-lasting single note or two – which I’m sure even Philip Glass would find too minimal – will repeat and repeat to pull the string of tension, keeping viewers edgy and uncomfortable. Considering Lanthimos’ previous Cannes winning films The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) and The Lobster (2013), The Favourite is relatively conventional in style as a period movie.

I have no favourite among the trio, all three deliver spot-on performance, lively in restraints or outbursts. Colman’s gout-stricken Queen Anne is ludicrous and simple minded, but only in appearance. In a candid moment in front of Abigail, she pours out her inner hurts, so much tragedy in her life: 17 pregnancies, none survived. The 17 rabbits she keeps in her bedchamber are symbols representing each one of her loss, twelve miscarriages and stillborn, five dead children. Doting on them is Anne’s way of dealing with her loss.

And kudos to Abigail who at one point has indeed shown genuine sympathy for the Queen’s plight. Anne is perceptive of this too, a point well earned in Abigail’s favour. Stone is well cast in her role, her initial naiveté shines through. She soon learns that is her best weaponry, and uses it well as she turns into a master of manipulation behind the youthful and innocent mask.

Weisz’s Sarah is cool, scheming, head-strong and controlling. She is the voice and brain of Queen Anne, and yet we can see too that there is a strain of care underlying the strong front. Love speaks the truth, she tells Anne at one point, and the Queen seems to accept Sarah’s opinion with docility – including comment such as “you look like a badger”, citing the smeared eyeshadow on her face – that is, until Abigail shows up.

A palace is a decadent place where power reigns supreme for whoever that happens to grab it for the moment. A mud bath for two could easily shift the dynamics of power balance. It’s intriguing and hard to discern if Anne’s fondness of lesbian pleasures is not so much a result of her innate senses but an intentional bait to control. Ultimately all three fall prey to uncensured misery. The closing shot shows there’s no winner, only the mashed up image of the two remaining in the Queen’s chamber, blurring and overlapping with the propagation of rabbits. And what are they, these rabbits, but symbols of death and remembrance of loss? Surely not a comedic ending.

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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After watching the film I went online to learn more about Queen Anne and the historic background of the movie. Here are some of my findings (Warning: Spoilers):

There were no rabbits – They are but director Lanthimos’ own creation. But does it matter that the real-life Queen Anne didn’t have a soft spot for bunnies? I feel they are quite effective here in the film, contrasting Anne’s soft heart and Abigail’s callous, sadistic dealing with those around her, notable is the scene where she steps on one almost crushing the poor creature flat on the floor. Quite like a movie adaptation of a book, a film is a totally different entity and art form for expression.

Abigail did not poison Sarah Churchill – I can understand, to advance the plot and consistent with Abigail’s callous scheming to get rid of obstacles in her way. However, maybe a slight apology to the real Abigail Hill in history for portraying her like a Lady Macbeth?

Queen Anne had a husband – Queen Anne married Prince George of Denmark in 1683.  She had been married for 19 years before she came to the throne and reigned for 12 years, 1702–1714. Prince George died six years into her reign in 1708. According to some historic records, their marriage was strong and she was devastated by his demise. Abigail arrived in Anne’s palace in 1704, married Samuel Masham in 1707, Sarah stripped from her royal position in 1711. There’s an overlap of several years with Anne’s husband still alive when Abigail came into Anne’s court.

There is no mention at all in the film about Anne’s husband Prince George. Anne was portrayed as a single woman with a lesbian lover, Sarah Churchill, then later shifted her favourite to Abigail. The main thrust of the film is built on a lesbian love triangle. Is that also within the creative license held by the filmmaker?

Sarah and Anne’s real relationship remains unclear – Historic records show Anne and Sarah were inseparable since childhood, thus fostering a long-time mutual devotion to each other. The two had exchanged letters with passionate descriptions. As for the new favourite, Abigail, there was rumour that a song was circulated by the Whigs suggested that Anne committed “dark deeds at night” with a “dirty chambermaid.”

Letters from Anne to Sarah still exist and it’s clear there was a deep love between them – until Anne shifted to a new favourite, and in the movie, all due to Abigail’s scheming.

In a BBC News article, Queen Anne biographer Anne Somerset and playwright Helen Edmundson, who wrote the 2015 play on the relationship between Anne and Sarah performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, both agreed that “no one can now be entirely sure of the nature of the relationship between Anne and Sarah.” Further, “we should be wary of assuming that attitudes to sex, friendship and romance were the same as they are today.”

Such an ambiguity may just be too enticing a bait to pass by for a film director to tailor it for today’s audience. Does a period movie based on history need to be ‘faithful’ to it, or, the artist holds the creative license to imagine and create. Many period films do have discrepancies with historic facts. Perhaps, like adaptations from books, filmmakers can be revisionists as well?

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Some links to historical background:

The woman behind Queen Anne’s reign, BBC News

Anne (1665 – 1714), BBC History

The True Story Behind The Favourite, TIME

Was Queen Anne Really Caught in a Lesbian Love Triangle? Fact Checking The Favourite, People

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Related Post:

The King’s Speech: Fact and Fiction

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

21 thoughts on “The Favourite: How important is Historical Accuracy in a Period Movie?”

  1. First off, kudos on your review. Well written and spot on, to my interpretation and time with the film. That’s a formidable acting trio and all the praised heaped onto the film for the performances, design and such are well earned indeed.

    Your summary of the historical discussion is a good one and one that we discussed off blog. It is a topic, which, as you know, bothers me tremendously. I know it is, as Rick says, “a movie, not a documentary” but sometimes veering off makes a difference as to what you think of the characters. For example, if we as viewers had known about Anne’s husband and their apparently devoted relationship, would we have had the same feelings (or “belief'”) in the scenes with Sarah? The bunnies are a useful video device and in a way they don’t really matter — and yet in another way they serve to present Anne as a little off kilter, a bunny per baby. Nothing is said about her patronage of the arts (in particular, Handel) or her role as a staunch supporter and advocate for the unification of England and Scotland, which occurred during her reign. She may not have been England’s greatest queen, but in the film she is presented as a rather crabby woman (and I would be too, with gout) and not particularly the brightest bulb on the tree.

    There’s more there, when you dig into it. Would adding it make the movie better? Maybe yes, maybe no. But it would make it more honest.

    I always worry about this with movies related to history for a reason that might not have much merit (or maybe a lot). That is, for people who don’t study history but might attend a movie, that becomes the “fact.” The fake news. You and I both went back to look up a few things. How many people do that? I daresay, not a lot. And again, sometimes it doesn’t matter if a time period is crunched or you add a bunny. But does it change your perception of the people, places or times? When fact and fiction become too closely aligned as they do in historical pieces, it can be, if not dangerous, at least troublesome.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jeanie,

      I can understand your concern. In our present time, truth-telling is of utmost importance in journalism and news reporting. But you know, Rick is right in pointing out the difference between a doc. and a creative production. BTW, even docs are told from the stance of the filmmakers, not purely objective. With movies, I’m sure you’re aware there has long been a ‘tradition’ of veering off from the facts for the sake of artistic/creative choices of the production. Even The King’s Speech has been criticized for its inaccuracy in that Winston Churchill did not side with KGVI as the movie depicted but had wanted his older brother EdwardVIII to stay on as King, plus other discrepancies. And in the extreme case, there’s Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds about a group of U.S. Jewish soldiers successfully assassinated a whole bunch of Nazi leaders including Hitler as they blew up the theatre they were in. Re-writing history? I’d just let it pass as one filmmaker’s fantasy or imagination.

      You’re right to acknowledge the achievements of Queen Anne’s reign, the uniting of England and Scotland, the two-party system began, among others. I guess for a two-hour film, the director has to select and focus on a perspective considering the limitations, seeking out the relationship of the trio in this case, as in Edmundson’s play written for the RSC. There were 6 years left in her reign after Anne’s husband died, so the film could have depicted a certain period during those years, with a little mix-up of specifics in timeline maybe. I’ve also read that Sarah had told Anne to remove her late husband’s picture after his death to which apparently she complied. With her controlling power over Anne–as I’m not a historian I don’t know–but one query I have is, could the accomplishments during Anne’s reign be due to Sarah’s influence? Since Sarah did have a lot of say in Anne’s court. I don’t know but that’s an interesting issue to explore. The film could have portrayed what came after Anne’s husband passed, as Sarah wasn’t deposed of her power until 1711. My point is that, there’s ambiguity, esp. re. the intimate relationships, which ‘conveniently’ invites imaginary treatment thus taken by the director at his liberty for today’s viewers. I totally empathize with your concern though, which is a contentious issue: are there limits to artistic freedom?

      I know, we won’t find an absolute solution here at the Pond. But I much appreciate the ripples. Thank you for sharing your views.

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  2. My wife and I instantly went to Google to find out the historical facts after seeing this fascinating film. We were surprised to see how accurate it actually was (I had guessed wrongly while watching it that Queen Anne was the only real person in the trio) – albeit with some major assumptions made about relations and mangling of timelines.

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    1. David,

      Glad to see there are another two Googling after watching a film. You may take my reply to Jeanie above as a response to your comment. Are you looking forward to seeing all the upcoming awards results? BTW, The Favourite just won Best Acting Ensemble at the Critics Choice Awards tonight.

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      1. The awards season doesn’t interest me as much as it used to, but this season does seem to be wilder than most in terms of what might win…and I still like to root for my personal favorites…which this year would be If Beale Street Could Talk.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I was very eager to see this movie. I’m always disappointed when I feel that the writer and director have strayed too far from the facts, but I did enjoy this movie. It did have a surreal quality, which seemed to signal that some of it was fantasy.

    Perhaps, I enjoyed it most because I read more about the history after seeing the movie.

    Many years ago, while I worked at the University of Kansas, I interviewed a faculty member who had acquired a letter of the Duke of Marlborough (perhaps this one) to Sarah for the university’s collection. http://etext.ku.edu/view?docId=ksrlead/ksrl.sc.marlboroughjMSP204_1.xml;route=ksrlead;brand=ksrlead;query=
    This led me to an interest in Marlborough and Blenheim Palace, which I later visited. We were shown the room where Winston Churchill was born while his mother was visiting her brother in law, George Spencer-Churchill, 8th Duke of Marlborough.

    I thought it was interesting in the movie that Queen Anne showed Sarah the model of Blenheim Palace and told her that she was building Blenheim Palace for her, rather than the official story that it was to reward the first Duke for his war victory.

    The University of Kansas also has this collection:
    https://spencer.lib.ku.edu/collections/special-collections/eighteenth-century
    “A collection of poems and pamphlets (satirical and panegyrical) concerning John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722).

    Significant holdings in Special Collections on the life and activities of the First Duke of Marlborough were given sharper focus in 1976 by the acquisition through gift funds of the Robert D. Horn Collection of contemporary poems on the Duke. The more than 150 pamphlets of satire and panegyric provide a literary complement to the largely historical items already in the collections.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Cathy for all the links and info plus your personal experience visiting Blenheim Palace. What a rich resource of background knowledge. I’ll definitely check them out. Just from your comment, it seems that satires were common during that time. So Lanthimos could well be following a ‘tradition’ in his storytelling. 🙂

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  4. The film sounds great. Very interesting though about the historical inaccuracies you learned about. Did they color your experience of the film after the fact or do you see it as something all in the name of telling a good story?

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    1. Actually it’s relatively accurate in that all characters are historic figures and the female trio did have very close connections, esp. Queen Anne and Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. There are ambiguity in their intimate relationship hence allowing an opening for the filmmaker to enter with his own liberty and imagination. I think you’ll really enjoy this one, Stefanie.

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  5. Because of my husband’s illness I had not been to the cinema in 4 years or more (or seen any film) – it became impossible to take him and I could not go alone and leave him. On television he liked to watch old westerns, so I did not see new movies either – I know that would have been difficult for you as you enjoy films very much.

    About 3 weeks ago though my daughter asked me to accompany her to see my first movie since my husband passed away in October, and we saw A Star is Born, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I don’t know when I’ll go and see a second film, the one I would like to see is the BlackkKlansman – have you seen it? It is supposed to be a true story, but I don’t know if it is accurate. I understand the need to have artistic freedom to make a movie, but it also bothers me a bit. I remember how “creative imagination” was used in the film “Lincoln” but then the film was given to high schools thus having students study not historical facts but “creative” facts. I am not sure I like this. Your report on the film The Favourite is outstanding, much better written than most film reviews I have read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. VB,

      It’s always a controversial issue isn’t it, to ‘sacrifice’ accuracy for artistic creativeness and free expressions. I’ve not a chance to see BlackkKlansman yet, but of course it’s high on my list. Two other films I think you’ll enjoy is Roma and Free Solo. I’ve written reviews of those and yes, A Star Is Born. Click on the Page “Movies Reviewed” on the Header above then you’ll see a list of all the recent movies I’ve reviewed. Some date back to last fall. Would love to have your two pebbles in the Pond to see some ripples. You’ve been a long time visitor to Ripple Effects and I always appreciate your sharing of your thoughts. Thank you again for this comment and your kind words.

      Like

  6. For some reason I couldn’t quite get into this movie though I loved the acting, particularly Coleman. (It did’t help that I had to leave the theatre in the middle with an awful coughing fit.). I liked the theme of court manipulation and corruption. I liked the rabbit motif for her pain and loss. I’m one who doesn’t get too fussed about accuracy in feature films/historical fiction (versus documentary/history/biography.) And, funnily enough Queen Anne is one of the few earlier English monarchs whose date I know. (At least I knew 1714 was the end of her reign.) I also liked the film’s soundscape. BUT somehow it just didn’t feel right to me. One of those things.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. WG,

      You’ve mentioned quite a few positive things about the film. That you didn’t feel particularly engaged with it emotionally may just be what many viewers share. I myself didn’t either, but just appreciated the various aspects from an “armchair like” detachment. That’s what led me to say this in my post: “If you’re on an existential quest for meaning, look elsewhere.This film is pure entertainment, irreverent, surreal, sumptuous in set design, costumes, make-up, and spot-on in editing and acting; but it’s not for the serious meaning seeker.”

      In contrast, I saw “Greta” yesterday. Even though it has Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz in it and both perform well, and the film directed by Oscar winning Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, The End of the Affair), it just didn’t work as a whole or convincing enough. “The Favourite” is a much better production from all counts, and that’s what makes it a notable Oscar Best Pic nominee. What are the 2018 films you’re most fond of?

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        1. I can’t say there’s one I totally fall for, or that’s won me hands down. I hope 2019 will bring more rewarding features on the big screen. I say that because some of the titles I was totally absorbed and felt rewarded were all on the smaller screen, the mini-series on Netflix: The Kominsky Method (Michael Douglas, Alan Arkin), Collateral (Carey Mulligan), Bodyguard (Richard Madden)…

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          1. No, me neither… Obviously! Haven’t seen any of those mini-series, but then we don’t have Netflix, though the time is coming. So far we’ve had enough to watch on free-to-air such as, last year, Killing Eve.

            I enjoyed some documentaries last year, though they were pretty standard format, like RBG and an Aussie one, Gurrumul.

            Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, re 2018, From memory, I really liked Shoplifters and Cold War. (I didn’t see Roma unfortunately). I thought BlacKKKlansman was powerful, and Bohemian Rhapsody. I enjoyed Green Book but wouldn’t have picked it as Best Film.

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        1. You must see Roma then, it’s on Netflix. I like Shoplifters too. Actually I like all Kore-eda’s films. Now Cold War is another one that looks good but I wasn’t engaged with it.

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