Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in the film THE FAVOURITE. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Love and Sarah in ‘The Favourite’

8 mins read

With its many Oscar nominations and Olivia Colman’s win at the Golden Globes, The Favourite is receiving plenty of well-deserved love from the film community.

Unusually structured into eight or so vignettes, each titled with strange little poems and anxiety-producing classical music hurling each episode to its end, the movie plays with our understanding of history’s battles. Its hyper-stylization accents the triangular relationship between the sickly Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her advisor and secret lover Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s distant cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) who turns up at the castle of Queen Anne looking for work.

The once-scorned Abigail, determined to reinstitute her status as a lady, quickly worms her way into the social hierarchy of British royalty and government. As Britain wars with France, Queen Anne all but abdicates her duties to Sarah, whose love of queen and country keeps her determined to see the war through, rather than soften to the wealthy Parliament members pleas to eliminate the property tax that pays for the fight. While Britain’s national reputation distracts Sarah, Abigail woos the Queen, splintering their special relationship in pursuit of restoring her ladyship, and she succeeds.

In a movie so interested in power on a political and personal level (who can forget the final scene, in which Abigail is subjugated yet again, as she has always been, by her queen?), Sarah emerges the heart of the film. In the beginning of the film, our hero Abigail, locked out of the social hierarchy by pitiful circumstance, watches Sarah exude control over Queen Anne, acting in her stead for political matters, critiquing her appearance, and sternly calming the Queen during gout flare-ups and panic attacks. At first this control seems cruel. But love is that way, Sarah insists, after remarking that Anne’s fanciful makeup makes her look like a badger. It cannot lie.

The same truth, for Sarah, extends to country. Sarah enjoys presiding over the war, speaking on behalf of the Queen to Parliament. She also speaks on behalf of her husband, a general who mans the front. (When Abigail asks her if she’s afraid her husband will die, she responds, “There is always a price to pay. I am willing to pay it.”) Land-owning members of Parliament refuse Sarah’s proposed property tax to fund the war. They claim the British citizens whose lives, homes and villages have been ruined by war have suffered enough, but Sarah isn’t fooled. Her country’s dignity is on the line. There is always a price to pay.

Sarah’s intentions are not so pure as to only be about strict devotion; she certainly enjoys her power, and flaunts it. Her pantsuits and riding outfits portray a lady too tenacious for her time, which is perhaps why Parliament despises her so much. Abigail, no less vivacious, makes herself submissive to earn her place as Sarah’s personal handmaiden before sweeping away the Queen’s affections for good. Sarah’s confidence blinds her again in her fatal hour, when she threatens Queen Anne with exposing their erotic letters unless Anne reinstates her as her advisor and takes her back as a lover.

But this isn’t love, and both Sarah and the Queen know it. From the other side of the locked door that once led to a secret passage between their chambers, Sarah tries to return to that value she once held, that love and truth are one in the same:

Lady Sarah: Abigail has done this. She does not love you.
Queen Anne: Because how could anyone? She wants nothing from me. Unlike you.
Lady Sarah: She wants nothing from you. And yet somehow she is a lady. With 2000 a year, and Harley sits on your knee most nights.
Queen Anne: I wish you could love me as she does!
Lady Sarah: You wish me to lie to you? “Oh you look like an angel fallen from heaven, your majesty.” No. Sometimes, you look like a badger. And you can rely on me to tell you.
Queen Anne: Why?
Lady Sarah: Because I will not lie! That is love!

And she is right. By now, we have seen the barbarity with which Abigail has played this game of favorites. Sarah is the only one who sees the Queen in all her weakness and loves her anyway. Love cannot wash away pain but can guide one through it, as Sarah tries to do with both Queen Anne and Britain. Even as Abigail snakes her way into the relationship, partnering with the Tory’s to convince the Queen to end the property tax, poisoning Sarah in the woods so that the Queen believes she has left her, and lying about Sarah and her husband’s embezzlement of Crown funds, Sarah writes to Anne for forgiveness understanding in earnest her own wrongdoing. There is always a price to pay, and Sarah lays down herself as a sacrifice.

It’s only as she watches the Queen’s forces come to evict her from the country she loves so deeply does she accept defeat.

The Favourite’s true ending cinches the themes of subjugation, power and control that preoccupies the movie. Yet Sarah stands apart. Her rejection by Queen and country is nothing short of hell, but it also frees Sarah from the power struggle altogether. She has lost everything and yet she is the only one free of the toxicity Queen Anne and Abigail now share. Though wounded, the heart goes on. Sarah’s willingness to love through pain and throw herself down as sacrifice make her story the most heartbreaking in the end, because we know, now, that of all of them Sarah was the only one who knew how to love.

Rachelle Martin is a writer, media analyst and graduate student at the University of Southern California. You can find her rewatching her favorite kid's shows, writing furiously about gender, and weeping over the ‘folklore’ album. She is always wearing a sweater.

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