How Hit Movie Royally Cheats History’s Female Power Players

"The Favourite" is an early Oscar darling that does.

November 29, 2018 5:00 am

The Favourite, which opened last weekend to glorious reviews and box-office triumph, is poised for Oscars, staking a claim as madcap feminist revisionist history.

However, England’s Queen Anne and her devoted Lady Marlborough a.k.a. Sarah Churchill (played respectively and gloriously by Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz) were key players on a world stage that involved a war with the expansionist French King Louis XIV and a pitched conflict between Catholics and Protestants at home and abroad. Adding in the lesser-known maidservant Abigail Hill (a slippery, sexy Emma Stone), who made an eleventh hour entrance into their long and fruitful collaboration, the trio forms a winking lesbian All About Eve triangle.

And, unfortunately, Yorgos Lanthimos’ bawdy version of The Crown shortchanges the Queen and Sarah’s standing as women in history, and their respective power and capabilities. Anne was a Protestant ruler in a time of religious conflict. Sarah was married to the head of Anne’s military, and her political savvy within the court had helped the First Duke of Marlborough’s rise to that position from his low birth and preserved Anne from palace intrigue.

Impressive feats. The film, however, is satisfied playing the women for laughs as spokes in a menage a trois and not lifelong companions. Anne is frequently reduced to an excessive gouty pouty monarch in the late Henry VIII vein, while Sarah comes off as a trouser-wearing bossy Mean Girl with a tongue sharper than a serpent’s tooth. There’s more to it — and them. 

Anne was Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland for five years between 1702 and 1707, during that time uniting the three countries under the Acts of Union into Great Britain and reigning until her death in 1714. The wan, sickly child with an eye condition had been no more likely to ascend the throne than Queen Elizabeth II, having witnessed from her birth in 1665 the reign of her Protestant Uncle Charles II, who died without a legitimate heir on her 20th birthday.

This little sister was bred to wed, not lead. Charles II (whose father had been beheaded in 1649 for high treason) insisted that his brother James raise Anne and her older sister Mary in the Anglican faith. However, the fraternal heir to the throne had Roman Catholic leanings that appealed to certain factions and alienated others. When he succeeded Charles as King, his increasing alliance with Papist interests led to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and his deposition by Anne’s sister Mary and her Dutch Protestant husband (and first cousin) William of Orange.

Clearly, like Anne Boleyn or any one of a fistful of royals, Anne existed under constant threat of political upheaval, religious reprisal, and the relentless contemporary killers that spared neither royal nor commoner: scarlet fever, typhus, smallpox and childbirth. Her grandfather had been executed, her father exiled by her sister. That, certainly, would be enough to land a contemporary princess on Freud’s couch.

Meanwhile, born in 1660 to a prominent but impoverished family, the Protestant Miss Sarah Jennings had met young Anne, six years her junior, in the Court of Charles II in 1673 and over the years they grew closer. At 15, the maid- in-waiting encountered her future husband John Churchill (playbed by an underused Mark Gattis). He was the father of her seven children, two that died in infancy, and progenitor of Sir Winston Churchill and Diana, Princess of Wales.

For a fusty but fabulous retelling of their story, try the BBC 1969 mini-series The First Churchills. The Churchills were a power duo in court and on the battlefield.

Anne appointed Sarah a Lady of the Bedchamber following her arranged marriage to the accommodating and unambitious Prince George of Denmark and Norway, nowhere to be seen or even hardly remembered in The Favourite. They wed in 1685 and remained devoted to each other until his grievous death in 1708. Their pairing resulted in at least 17 pregnancies, although tragically no offspring survived into puberty.

A pause, please, to honor the emotional and physical toll this failed cycle of reproduction took upon the mortal Anne (seen suffering from gout later in life) – and the bond the women had having both survived infant deaths of their first born.

Sarah and Anne’s attachment lasted for three decades. While Sarah was the older and wiser, a friendship with royalty had to be one-sided and uneven, a delicate dance that Lady Churchill managed successfully for more than a generation despite her preference for straight talk and advice, hold the sweetener.

Through births and deaths, plots and counterplots, house arrests and narrow escapes, deadly conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, English and French, the pair remained close as Anne rose along with Lord and Lady Churchill.

After Prince George’s death, it can be argued that Sarah, long the power behind the throne, charged into the vacuum with her husband and the Whig Prime Minister Godolphin (James Smith), insisting the Queen move from Kensington Palace to London’s St. James against her will. In pursuing her party and family’s agenda, Sarah mistakenly overplayed her hand with the increasingly taciturn royal widow who now resisted the other woman’s bossiness. The Anglican Anne became increasingly intimate with the churchy Tory party, led by the effete Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult).

A political and emotional rift formed between the two women that would ultimately sweep Lady Marlborough from the Queen’s bedchamber. And it was Emma Stone’s fallen lady, Sarah’s distant cousin Abigail Hill, who saw opportunity and pounced. With a pleasing tongue (pun intended), her character insinuated herself between the pair and, with the vigor of youth and Tory support, expanded and exploited the division, an ingénue threatening an old relationship of unequals.

The Favourite focuses on one year, truncated for effect, when Abigail displaced the domineering Sarah, using sex as a fulcrum. The sweeping life-long story of powerful women, wheeling and dealing between childbirth and mourning, also fascinates. While I can only wonder how lusty the ailing Anne actually was following 17 pregnancies, in the game of musical beds, Lady Churchill became the odd woman out – but she got her own back by surviving Anne and publishing her memoirs, An Account of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough from her first coming to Court to the year 1710, in 1742. Tinged with bitterness and rage over a 30-year relationship cracked and broken and a steep fall from political grace, it shows the fragility of human relations and the power of the pen to define and, at times distort, how we represent key historical figures, like Queen Anne.  

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