‘The Favourite’ Queers The Past And The Present

I’m currently on a mission to get every queer person I know to see The Favourite. You could say it’s my “Favourite” movie of 2018, and since I’m writing this in late December you can really tell I’ve seen everything the year has to offer and chosen this decadent lesbian sweetmeat of a film out of all the options. If someone makes a period piece about my life 300 years from now, I would hope the depiction of social media’s Jane Austen-like intricacies gets the same treatment The Favourite gives to English nobles racing ducks and throwing oranges at that one naked dude (I guess that’s just his job or something???).

The Favourite is queer history in two senses of the term, since it depicts what by all accounts was a real queer relationship between Queen Anne and Lady Sarah Churchill (an 18th-century forebear of Winston), while also extrapolating beyond what we know to actively create that relationship’s intimate moments, “queering” history. While the details of Sarah and Anne’s relationship behind closed doors is unknown, and indeed they might never even have consummated their relationship, the letters between the two women make it hard to pass them off as “gal pals.” The letters contain phrases like “I can’t go to bed without seeing you” and “come to me as soon as you can that I may cleave myself to you.” In case it wasn’t clear, “cleaving” means sex.

Some would counter the evidence in these letters by arguing that courtly correspondence was always this flowery and poetic. It’s true that if we considered every pair of people in that time period who professed their “love” for each other to actually be lovers, it would mean the whole English court was one big polyamorous bacchanal. We can even see examples of this overwrought language between friends over social media today, when girls comment on each other’s Instagrams to say “OMG I’M OBSESSED WITH U.” Mary II, Anne’s sister, once described one of her female courtiers as her “husband”—but how many engagement posts have you seen between female roommates on Facebook?

However, there’s a difference between enthusiastic friendship and the kind of relationship that makes fathers recall their daughters from court because they’re getting inappropriately close to Queen Anne. That seems to be what happened with Mary Cornwallis, a Lady of the Bedchamber in Anne’s service—and this in a situation where the queen’s obsession with their daughter would typically be a parent’s wildest dream. If that wasn’t proof enough, later in life Sarah publicly accused Anne of lesbianism as revenge for being jilted and banished from court—this too can be seen as evidence since Sarah used Anne’s letters to her as proof of the queen’s inclinations. If Sarah could use those letters to accuse Anne, then they must have been erotic even by the standards of courtly love.

Of course, any film as provocative as The Favourite makes people wonder how much of it is really true. How much does the film present queer history, and how much is it “queering” history? It’s a conversation that happens around even the more mundane period pieces; coverage of a period piece tends to center around “why X’s character would never have really made this choice” or “how Y’s character actually pulled off that OMG moment!!!” And so on. It’s true that when Anne cheekily tells Sarah that she likes when her new lady-in-waiting Abigail “puts her tongue inside me,” the present brings its own humor into the past. The present also inserts itself into the past when the actors speak in accents we can understand, and when the whole thing is recorded on a modern camera because it’s a movie.

The Favourite is a game-changing period piece because it throws out the rulebook for how period pieces relate to truth and reality. The Favourite is both queer history and “queering” history because, as director Yorgos Lanthimos clearly knows, our viewpoint of history is never purely a reconstruction of the facts—we actively construct history as well, based on our own opinions. We figure out what we know, but then we fill in the details with our own incomplete, biased, and flawed perspectives. Lanthimos dances a beautiful tightrope routine on the line between these two aspects of the period piece with The Favourite’s deadpan accuracy—it’s the very facts of the period (like men in high heels) that make the world of Queen Anne’s court seem absurd to us. Not only is this interplay between the known and the unknowable hilarious at times like these, it’s the basis of good storytelling in any period piece, though The Favourite certainly takes it farther than ever before.

Anyone who’s ever watched C-SPAN knows that watching history play itself out in perfect factual detail is incredibly boring. The point of a period piece is to make history interesting by presenting the emotional reality of the time period—which means taking a stance on what that emotional reality was, through judicious presentation of fact and, yes, intelligently-guessed fiction. By nature a film is the imposition of one narrative on a universe that contains multitudes, and that goes for the past even more than it does for the present, since however unknowable the present is (post-truth era, etc., etc.) the past is even more so. Being a filmmaker is about choosing what narrative you want to present out of your infinite choices, and Lanthimos chose a queer one for The Favourite. If films were just bare facts, they wouldn’t be an art, they would be a science.

It also bears mentioning that if a filmmaker doesn’t choose to “queer” history, that doesn’t mean they’re telling history like it was—it just means they’re “straighting” history. Replacing the gay agenda with the straight agenda does not mean there’s no agenda. When The Imitation Game shows Alan Turing in a relationship with Keira Knightley despite the fact that he was chemically castrated for being gay, that is the straight agenda. Capote and the Cole Porter biopic Night and Day also shortchange their queer subjects, removing or overwriting their sexualities. The question isn’t one of removing agendas from film—it’s a question of which agenda we choose. As the Queer Crisis Collective asks: “Who thrives? Who dies? Whose body matters? Whose history survives? Who is missing?”

It’s vital for period pieces, not to mention us, the people who watch them, to question our construction of history. This winter’s other most-talked-about period drama, Mary Queen of Scots, includes several non-white actors in the cast, supporting the film’s robust dialogue about identity. Mary’s court bard even comes out to her as a trans woman and Mary claims her as a sister. I know what you’re thinking: there is no way a queen in the 16th century would be that woke. That’s obviously true. However. She also would not have been un-woke in the ways that our society today is. For instance, the construction of race during the time period of Mary Queen of Scots didn’t impose the same racial politics as we do, meaning that yes, black men could be courtiers for Queen Elizabeth, or an Asian woman could have been her lady-in-waiting. Mary’s level of wokeness was always already a choice for the director to make, rather than a known historical fact that would (or could) be put on screen.

Sometimes re-imagining a time period actually means restoring accuracy to a period that has been whitewashed by the dominant agenda. While director Josie Rourke confirms that the specific characters she cast PoCs to play were historically white, it’s still true that the world of that time period was not as white as most period pieces make it out to be. The Ottoman Empire was one of the most technologically advanced civilizations of that time, meaning that Arabic people and the Moors, who were African Muslims, would have been uncommon but accepted in Elizabethan England. Queen Elizabeth’s “Favourite” playwright, a community theater actor by the name of Shakespeare, even wrote a play with a black main character! Mary Queen of Scots is hardly an instance of Hamilton casting, but it is an instance of period-accurate (though not character-specific) diversity.

Speaking of Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway show certainly takes this approach to history through its casting of PoCs as the Founding Fathers; LMM notably called Hamilton a portrayal of “America then” by “America now.” Hamilton’s political agenda is at the forefront of the story, since it’s a musical about legacy and who controls the narrative of history. When the whole cast sings “who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” at the end, is it that different from asking, “who thrives? who dies? who is missing?”

One main point of Hamilton is that the way we understand how history comes from our understanding of ourselves. “America then” doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s always being told by some faction of “America now.” “America now” creates itself by telling the stories of “America then.” Even the strictest circles of academic history are little more than a feedback loop of narrative and ideology. Likewise, a film, whether it’s about history or the present, carries with it much more than a plot and a few characters. It also lays out a system of narratives and conventions that can either reinforce or contradict what is thinkable in the society watching the film. The stories we tell literally create the reality we live in—so we need to tell good ones, both for us and for those who will come after.

Because the thing is, queer stories aren’t just for the queer people that already exist—queering history queers the audience. More millennials identify as LGBTQ than any generation before them, and that’s because millennials grew up knowing that being LGBTQ was a legitimate option. Queer people who are in the closet today can watch these films and see queer people who have been in the closet for all of history, since even if one specific biopic subject wasn’t really in the closet, there have certainly been enough people in the closet throughout history to make up the difference! To wit, queer people who haven’t realized they are queer yet—a much larger proportion of humans who have ever existed than many people believe—can see these films and get the tip-off that leads them to start feeling around in the dark for the closet door.

Stories are reality, and reality is politics—so go change reality a bit by seeing The Favourite, before going off to change the reality outside the theater by punching a Nazi or voting out your least favorite local Republican. Isn’t it about time to make a New Year’s resolution to overthrow the government more in 2019?

Top photo: Queen Anne and Lady Marlborough.

Middle Photo 1: Queen Anne and Abigail Masham.

Middle Photo 2: Abigail Masham.

Bottom Photo: Lady Marlborough.

Photo Credit: 21st Century Fox.

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Giorgi Plys-Garzotto is a journalist and copywriter living in Brooklyn. She especially loves writing about queer issues, period pieces, and the technical aspects of films.
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