In The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’ dark comedy of royal intrigue, manipulation is the main form of currency enabling women’s empowerment.
Portraying a 17th century social milieu in which men want to “look pretty” (the sculpted, powdered wigs become more outrageous in every scene) and women want to wield authority, Lanthimos erects a precarious structure that threatens to topple with every new power play. The script crackles with snarky, sometimes anachronistic wit, like a Mean Girls version of As You Like It. The thrilling cinematography, which often uses a flailing fisheye lens, mirrors the chaos of the drama that unfolds within the palace, as well as the volatility in Europe at the time. The three women (a queen, a lady in waiting, and a servant) snarled in the central royal pas de trois all want different things. The film has garnered heaps of praise — not to mention 10 Oscar nominations — but even so, the ending of the film is one we’ll be talking about for ages.
To talk about it, we need to start at the very beginning: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) wants comfort and reassurance, driven by a nearly-constant quest to appease her various appetites, both physical and emotional. She doesn’t always seem to understand that being queen is a full time job, and her petulance and tantrums make her difficult to please. Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), the queen’s first lady in waiting, has become a de facto advisor on matters of state, due to her highness’ lack of discipline and focus, but also endeavors to placate her majesty’s uneven moods.
Abigail (Emma Stone) is a newcomer at court, a lady whose social status has fallen drastically due to her father’s irresponsibility. Despite having suffered a good deal of abuse and hardship, Abigail’s resourcefulness and ambition allow her to ascend quickly from scullery maid to lady in waiting, a position that enables her to become closer to the queen and attain the position of “favourite.”
Abigail’s first foray into sycophancy occurs as a result of being pranked by a fellow servant, who doesn’t warn her to wear gloves when washing the floors with lye. The painful burns prompt her to sneak off to the forest on a stolen horse and gather herbs for a soothing ointment. When the queen has a painful attack of gout, Abigail applies the ointment to the sores erupting on her legs. Lady Sarah orders Abigail whipped as punishment for her impertinence at entering the queen’s bedchamber without permission, but when the ointment offers relief, Sarah reconsiders and offers Abigail a better job and a room of her own.
Abigail contrives to let Queen Anne know she was responsible for this medicinal witchery, and soon enough is enchanting the queen with her other talents. It soon becomes clear that Abigail is extraordinarily self-aware, and confident that her risky behavior will result in elevated status. Emma Stone’s effortless ability to telegraph her quick-witted subterfuge is delicious to watch.
Abigail takes to being a lady at court like a duck to water: her previous social status and education serve her well. A footman who spied her in the woods starts following her, and the two begin a rather spirited flirtation. But Abigail seems ill-suited for emotional entanglements, as relationships seem to be purely about control and acquisition for her. Indeed, women’s sexual relationships with men seem fairly inconsequential and prosaic: Anne remains childless despite 17 pregnancies; Sarah’s husband is kind but middle-aged, more a helpmeet than a lover; and Abigail makes little distinction between seduction and rape.
As Lady Sarah and Abigail vie for dominance, the Queen enjoys her role as the prize, needling Sarah about being jealous. That Sarah and Anne have a sexual relationship comes as something of a surprise, to viewers and also to Abigail, who discovers their secret while snooping for something else. She watches them, wide-eyed, then quietly sneaks away, to the sound of sighs.
Casually mentioning their “secret” to Lady Sarah while shooting clay pigeons, Abigail is made shockingly aware of how far Sarah will go to protect the queen and her own position. Later, Sarah carefully dresses the queen in leather armor for riding: it borders on fetishistic foreplay, but it’s also a moving display of intimate loyalty.
Seemingly undaunted by Sarah’s ruthlessness, Abigail uses sex as a gambit to elevate her status, and it works. Sarah can only surmise the queen is showing Abigail preferential treatment in order to exercise what little control she seems to have left, given Sarah’s necessary involvement in running the kingdom. But Sarah’s knowledge of Anne’s moods and proclivities allow her to best Abigail at her own game. Lanthimos creates a sort of horror version of the afternoon tea scene in The Importance of Being Earnest, with Sarah and Abigail one-upping each other’s displays of proper etiquette even as they plot revenge.
Then Abigail decides to play dirty, setting in motion events that cause Sarah to disappear for a few days. In that time, Abigail contrives to have the queen oversee her marriage to the besotted footman, and guarantee them palace lodgings and a generous yearly allowance. Her position is secured at last, and after Sarah returns, Abigail offers to bury the hatchet. The apology is every bit as manipulative as her earlier attempts to act subservient, and Sarah is not having it. This is not a story of women’s friendships, but of their attempts to build social fortresses to protect themselves, keeping the wolves from the door by any means possible.
Sarah is finally left with very few weapons, and when she takes a chance on using the most powerful one in her arsenal, the queen responds with swift authority, having Sarah banished along with her husband. Abigail is now the top lady in waiting, but her position also consists of being an intimate caretaker — and only that.
In the end, the queen, feeling dizzy, needs to hold onto something to remain standing and twines her fingers tightly in Abigail’s hair. The subtle camera movement, slowly side to side in a motion evocative of sexual rhythm, and Abigail’s firm but trembling lip, suggest she knows her role going forward will be less that of a lady in waiting who dabbles in court intrigue and more a nursemaid who will be required to perform increasingly undesirable tasks. The Queen’s established propensity towards overindulgence in foods that cause gastric distress demonstrates her self-destructive tendencies, but also the way she uses her own body to punish its caretakers. Abigail’s earlier scenes, where she falls in the mud, is forced to watch a stranger masturbate, and is thrown to the ground by her future husband, presage the humiliating, subservient position she finds herself in as the film ends.
Then there are the rabbits.
Queen Anne’s seventeen pet rabbits, all named for her children who died, miscarriages and doomed infants, have been released from their cages since Sarah’s departure. Abigail initially took delight in them. Now she blithely tortures them.
In the final shot, as Abigail squirms in her cruel grip, we see the queen’s face shot from below, a blank mask of deteriorating health and deep grief. She seems unaware of Abigail’s presence, lost in some dark reverie. Over shots of their two faces, we see superimposed an image of the rabbits scampering across the floor of Anne’s bedchamber. They seem to be multiplying in a shadowy mound of trembling, twitching fur.
The queen’s emotional instability, brought on at least in part from the devastating loss of her 17 babies, is no longer kept in check by a loyal lover. She knows she is in decline, and Sarah’s absence drives home her deep loneliness. The work Sarah did to forge a complex and intimate connection with Anne will always elude Abigail, who cannot provide emotional comfort to anyone, not even herself.
The image of the rabbits slowly overpowers the women’s faces, a throbbing mass of animal fertility, a dark warmth offering cold comfort to the queen doomed to die without an heir, and who banished the only true friend she ever had.
It is an ending with a chilling message: we are our pain, and even as life comes to a close, that pain never abates. We should choose our friends and caregivers wisely, if we can, but if a queen cannot do so, what hope do we peasants have?
Peg Aloi is a film critic, witchcraft scholar, and pomologist whose work has appeared at Orlando Weekly, Broadly, and Film School Rejects.