The Favourites of Queen Anne (and Queen Christina)

Olivia Coleman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz, (footmen) and director Yorgos Lanthimos
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has won multiple prizes at A – list film festivals with dark comedies on language and gender. His latest film The Favourite is perhaps his most conventional film using the form of the historical drama. It premiered at the recent Venice Film Festival taking home the Grand Jury Prize, and a Volpi Cup awarded to Elizabeth Colman. The film is based on a radio play "Balance of Power" by Deborah Davis produced by the BBC in 2008 (script written in 1998) and the film producers sought out Lantimos to put it on screen. He revealed at Venice that he had to wait until Emma Stone was done with La La Land to make it. The Greek director found Davis’ play “too political” and hired Tony McNamara to give it a Lanthimos twist with focus on the female trio of lovers. Davis concern was to illustrate how these intimate relationships with the Queen affected political power during her reign.

A ‘favourite’ was a favored person to the regent common in the 16th through 18th centuries of early modern Europe. The relationship included various levels of intimacy including same sex love or otherwise. As Shakespeare wrote about them in Much Ado about Nothing - "Like favourites/ Made proud by Princes". Examples of “favourites” include Ebba Sparre, lady in waiting to the 17th century regent Queen Christina of Sweden, and Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) and Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) who vie for the coveted role to Queen Anne (Olivia Colman).

Lanthimos’ film presents Queen Anne as an incapable political ruler and a failure in personal relationships. In real life she had 17 children who died at childbirth or early infancy. The characters in Lantimos’ films are often cruel and sadistic and those in “The Favourite” are no exception, extending to members of the cabinet, ministers, and “the lady of the bedchamber”. The storytelling is not only presented through characters and dialogue but the mise en scène - the spaces in which the narrative is told and illustrated through lighting, costume, makeup, movement and setting. The compositions in this film indeed are equal characters. Filmed with a wide-angle lens, the rooms are often concave – massive kitchens with high stone ceilings and thick walls, the low ceiling palace with herringbone creaky wood floors, and the sumptuous overstuffed royal bedchamber with rabbits, each representing one of the 17 children she lost.

The Favourite is a tale of royal corruption and negligence especially between the rival favorites and Queen Anne, footmen, maids, servants, and in-residence earls. While courtesans engage in training ducks for races, Anne played brilliantly by distinguished British actress Olivia Colman has for years been attended to by her “favourite” - Lady Marlborough who advises her politically and personally. Her husband, the Duke of Marlborough is a military commander, and both engage in coordinating their asks to the regent for mutual benefit. In one scene, Sarah stridently mounts the bed of Anne with her boots and commands her to take better charge of the country and the military. Anne reluctantly crumbles to her wishes. The opening scene shows the arrival of Sarah’s cousin Abigail in a crowded coach including a self-pleasuring nobleman who shoves her onto a field of grass with human excrement. After this embarrassing introduction, Abigail installs herself in the kitchen, an opportunistic “fallen” lady who wants to rise again after being exchanged by her father to an elderly man to settle a gambling debt. Anne’s loyal and capable Sarah manages court affairs and truly loves her but is incrementally passed over by her younger cousin, clueless to all things regal as well as intricacies of military maneuvers, which she compares to “party games”. When Abigail sees Anne and Sarah in bed, her plan takes action – not because she loves Anne but because she knows bedding her is an opportunity to get a leg up in the palace. It doesn’t matter how she gains favor, for Abigail manages to poison Sarah’s tea before a ride where she is dragged by her horse for miles and taken in by a madam at a brothel to recuperate. During this time, Abigail endears herself to Anne who marries her to a resident statesman and gifts her dowry, an expense she writes off as a gambling debt. Abigail is once again a commodity exchange.

The historical revisionism of the film while captivating is ultimately a tale of women conniving and scheming for power from a regent who is ridiculed by the men of the court. If Davis’ aim was to show how this erotic liaison created power shifts in government, Lanthimos settles for trivializing and ridiculing the Queen. These scenes are the centerfold of the film and fit with the historic creation of ‘pleasure’ in film and other representational forms characterized by torture or ridicule of women.

The Swedish regent Queen Christina wrote in her autobiography that that she was mistaken for a boy at birth. As regent, she often dressed in male attire and refused to marry. Her gender fluidity and abdication of the throne to live in Rome have been the subjects of historical speculation,.Representations of Queen Christina of Sweden can be found in historic erotic lampoons (“nidskrifter”) where her relationships with women and her use of male clothing were ridiculed. Her relationships with women were a source of gossip and an exhumation of her body from her tomb in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was made to test for proof of her sexuality in the 1960’s (1).

Rouben Mamoulian's film Queen Christina (US 1933) shows her "favourite" Ebba Sparre but also her love interest in the Spanish envoy Antonio (John Gilbert) who initially mistakes her for a man due to her "male attire".

Sarah Gadon and Malin Buska
Mika Kaurismäki's The Girl King (2015 Finland) shows the relationship between Kristina (Malin Buska) and Sparre (Sarah Gadon) as a love affair that ends in Sparre's betrayal. In neither film is Christina ridiculed as she was in real life because of her attire or "favourites". It is Lantimos' film that ridicules the historic Anne due to her poor education, ineffective statesmanship and love of her "favourites".  Queen Anne is portrayed in the film as a buffoon of limited intelligence. Her physical ailments are given considerable attention and add to a portrait of weakness and incompetence for the monarch who died at 49.

Nevertheless, what the acting ensemble of Stone, Weisz and Colman brings to the screen is not altogether disempowering. Abigail and Sara vie for the attention of their queen through bold and emblazoned efforts. They must be dastardly to each other to bluntly and crudely win her affection. The queen realizes this and enjoys the power play. The link to how it affects her in parliament, however, is not clear. Lanthimos did not care about the history – the ‘politics’ as Davis did in her radio play, at present unavailable on the BBC. At the press conference in Venice, the Greek director revealed that he did not want to focus on same sex love for female regents and their ‘favourites’. There was no gay rights or LGBT movement at the time, but when we look back upon this historical period it is important to affirm same sex relationships, which some directors, producers and distributors avoid in order to prevent the film from being typecast as gay.
Lanthimos is not alone. Xavier Dolan, winner of the Queer Palm at Cannes in 2012 refused to accept the award for his film about an MTF transgender and “typecast” his film. “The Favourite” was also nominated for a Queer Lion this year. Deborah Davis realized that to depict ‘favourites’ would make the story ‘gay’ and complicate the ‘pitch’ to producers for financing. Lanthimos’ films are widely distributed and “The Favourite” has won and is nominated for several awards. The special media and public interest in the film is in fact due to a story of lesbians at court and the three top actresses who play them. Lanthimos has succeeded in creating a film where the reality of a regent and her darlings even though unnamed is out there.

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz
1) In 1965, the body of Queen Kristina of Sweden was exhumed from her tomb in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to test for proof of her sexuality, possible intersex, a hypothesis put forth in 1937 by Swedish doctor Elis Essen-Möller in Drottning Christina - en människostudie ur läkaresynpunkt (Queen Christina - a human study from a doctor's point of view). This idea popularized by Swedish author Sven Stolpe and historian Curt Weibell led to the exhumation of her body in 1965. Carl-Herman Hjortsjö led the exhumation filmed by a Swedish TV team. (Drottning Christina: gravöppningen i Rom 1965 : en kulturhistorisk och medicinsk-antropologisk undersökning. (Queen Christian Exhumation in Rome: a cultural-historic and medical-anthropological study).


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