I went into The Favourite like I do with many movies: knowing very little and having seen maybe a part of a trailer. I knew it was a period piece (duh) and there was a Queen in it (also: duh). Anyway, after watching the movie I read up on it on Wikipedia and found, to my immense surprise, that it was somewhat based on actual historical fact. It makes sense enough that I thought this movie was fabricated wholesale: there’s a Queen in power, nobles are vying for power, and England is at war with France; it’s the proverbial typical Tuesday. And yet, Queen Anne actually did have a pair of rival handmaidens, and many of the characters had their own Wikipedia articles detailing their real-life stories.
It was all quite fascinating, but, ultimately, also quite irrelevant.
Unlike many historical dramas dealing with heads of state, The Favourite is not terribly concerned with the major political movements of the time. Rather the focus is on Anne and the machinations of Abigail and Sarah that take place behind the scenes. There is some influence on the larger political landscape, but we see very little of life beyond the lush estate the action transpires in. Court life is ruthlessly savaged in this satire, the politicians reduced to overdressed men slathered with makeup in foppish wigs racing ducks.
Now, there is some criticism of The Favourite for playing fast and loose with history. Anne’s husband was still alive at the time all this drama went down, and the idea of there being lesbian liaisons between the Queen and her ladies-in-waiting is dismissed by some historians as nothing more than contemporary slander by the opposition. Despite being about real people and set against real events, The Favourite is an out and out lie.
Which is great, since the movie doesn’t purport to be anything but. There’s no fancy title card letting us know what century we’re in, there’s no real reference to the actual geopolitical situation at the time (let’s face it, England and France are at war in basically every period piece, and there’s always an opposition party). All the temporal trappings of the movie serve its central story and all the schemings therein.
The Favourite’s detachment from historical fact is what makes it all the more scathing. Since the exact time-period is indeterminate to the layperson (ie: me), I’m not gonna get caught up wondering about the exact details about the time and can instead happily get lost in the film. The world of The Favourite is the world the filmmakers want to use to tell their story. It is a world where men are useless and relegated to the background while the women with their plots and aspirations are far more important. We don’t need to care too much how accurate to the contemporary social mores it is, the way things happen is how they happen. It’s fantasy.
That’s the real pleasure of period pieces: they feel like another world with another set of rules and another life that’s very much not that of 2019. There’s a different set of rules, one that’s foreign yet familiar. Though the Queen may rule in The Favourite, some words in her ear from Abigail or Sarah can sway her mind. We go along with it because it makes enough sense not to break our suspicion of disbelief. Consider how most Westerns play fast and loose with reality, or the ersatz 80s-ness of Metal Gear Solid V; it doesn’t matter how accurate things are, so long as they feel real.
And so, despite its lack of historical accuracy, The Favourite really works so well because its world feels right and its characters real. For Anne, Abigail, and Sarah the world is deathly serious, and we buy in and get to enjoy the hijinks as they unfold.