It doesn't take much analysis to realize that The Favourite is a film about power. It’s a cynical takedown of the powerful, an analysis of our own sympathies as they align with those deprived of power, and a challenge to change our glorification of the systems that empower the rich in petty games of one-upmanship. These lines of power are shown to have stark divides across gender and class, and mobility between levels of power is only achievable through manipulation and deceit. If you’ve seen the movie, this is all obvious and any number of essays could be written about the various permutations of these dynamics and what The Favourite ultimately has to say about them. But for our purposes, I want to talk about what is arguably the most primal and important of them: sex.
Sex is a foundational bedrock of Queen Anne’s court, and by extension it is the primary mechanism by which Sarah and Abigail hold their sway. We’re shown early on that Sarah has a certain power of Anne, one that we are early led to believe is merely a lifelong friendship in which Sarah has acted as mentor and protector from bullying influences. But as Abigail discovers one night by accident, Sarah and Anne are lovers, and it’s from her position as a lover that Sarah pushes Anne to perpetuate the war with France. Sex is shown here to be a tool for political advancement, a transactional commodity in the basest currency of carnal pleasure.
Of course, Abigail is no stranger to the idea of sex as a form of trade. Sold off by her father in a lost bet at the age of fifteen, Abigail understands her value as a sexual being and isn’t afraid to use it in the name of survival and advancement. As she ascends the ranks and becomes Sarah’s lady in waiting, she makes moves toward seducing Colonel Masham with designs on using him to regain her place among the nobility, but the discovery of the queen’s taste in women gives Sarah an avenue to accelerate her plans. The only woman standing in her way is Sarah, and of course this is the basis for the contest of affections for which the film is named.
Now, Sarah is shown to use her relationship with Anne to advance her agenda for England, and because of that we are led in the assumption that Sarah has no special feelings for Anne and is instead pushing coital pleasure as a form of quid pro quo for political points. Sarah is consistently shown to be an emotionally abusive figure in Anne’s life, belittling the queen at every opportunity and, while demonstrating care for Anne’s deteriorating physical condition, is utterly careless with the details of Anne’s emotional state or the things which she personally values, such as her lost pregnancies and the rabbit pets who act as poor substitutes.
This would lead one to assume that Sarah and Abigail are much the same in their approaches to sex with Anne, the only difference being that Abigail’s more selfish ambitions make it easier for her to tell Anne what she wants to hear without compromising her goals, but what is readily apparent with Abigail is that sex is merely a tool in an arsenal. It’s unclear whether Abigail even enjoys sex, as she absent-mindedly masturbates Masham on their wedding night while wondering what Sarah’s next move against her shall be. Yes, Abigail is more attentive to Anne’s emotional needs, but those affections are based on lies as to Abigail’s true intentions.
Anne, meanwhile, is supposedly the woman with all the power in this scenario, but at the end of the day she is little more than a lonely woman with a title propping up the governmental shell of a sheltered aristocracy. Her position makes her unapproachable by most potential suitors, leaving her in a vulnerable state as perpetual illness and the ravages of time threaten to shake her free from her already warped perception of reality. Sex might be perceived as the mechanism by which Anne is manipulated, the promise of forbidden love that enables Sarah and Abigail to position themselves for favor, but Anne views sex as a symptom of emotional bonds rather than the transactional necessity that Abigail does. Abigail worms her way into Anne’s heart by asking about her seventeen surrogate rabbit children. To Abigail, the rabbits are props through which to learn enough about Anne to seduce her, but to Anne that sex means nothing without the feeling that it’s with someone who understands her and what her children mean to her.
This is how the apparent villainy of Sarah is revealed to be the lesser of two evils. Sarah’s treatment of Anne is, without question, cold and calculated to achieve the ends Sarah believes best for England, but the sad fact of the matter is that sex was never just a tool for Sarah. Sarah recognizes Anne’s incapacity as a ruler and, in effect, rules in her stead, calming the temper tantrums and guiding the hand of a woman she has genuine love for. That love is buried under a layer of acerbic wit and blatant emotional abuse, but the power of that love is what keeps England from conceding the war, even if that means Sarah isn’t entirely focused on Anne’s emotional needs. It’s a flawed love, but it’s also one for which sex is not a play for power, and the tragedy is that in this instance sex won out over love in the contest for the fate of the country.
On some level, even after Sarah is exiled and Abigail has taken her place in Anne’s bed, Anne recognizes the power she has lost in having Sarah by her side. Sex with Abigail only serves to strengthen Abigail, but the mutual care in the sexual relationship between Anne and Sarah strengthened the both of them, and to some extent the whole government. But as the aristocracy’s debauchery devolves further and Abigail’s attentions and affections wander, Anne uses the final moments of the film to reassert control over Abigail by forcing her to rub the sores on the queen’s leg. What was once a soothing, almost sensual act is transformed into a reclamation of strength, one that is surely fleeting but nevertheless real as Anne recognizes what she has lost. For Sarah, sex was an expression of her power in love; with Abigail it is a symbol of her rise and downfall. Anne was played by someone who wielded the tool masterfully, and though it is too late to reclaim that power entirely, Anne uses the film’s final moments to show us that she recognizes what it means to have power in a love that is now lost.
The Favourite is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.