Hear me out: There is absolutely a case to be made that Yorgos Lanthimos’ bizarre, brilliant costume dramedy The Favourite is a romantic comedy. It’s worth pondering, since the film is up for a slew of Academy Awards this weekend, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Olivia Colman, Best Supporting Actress for both Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director for Lanthimos, and a bunch of others—it’s even the favorite (!) to win a few of them. Which means that if it were a rom-com, The Favourite would be one of the most prestigious films in the history of the genre.
Okay sure, if you go in expecting Notting Hill and instead get a vaguely historical, pitch-black lesbian love triangle with a dash of body horror, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you paid attention during our recent Rom-Com Week (start here to catch up), you can probably already see how there’s a case to be made that The Favourite is an awards-garnering, weird AF indie addition to the rom-com canon.
If you haven’t seen the movie yet, its premise is fairly straightforward in theory, but plays out rather unexpectedly. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
The film follows the rule of Queen Anne (played with a pitch-perfect mix of unhinged childishness and tortured sadness by Olivia Colman, who won the Best Actress Golden Globe for the part) and the two women who curry favor in her court...through her bed. Queen Anne is kind of grotesque—riddled with open sores from gout and other unspecified ailments, she eats with her mouth open and shrieks at the top of her lungs and weeps uncontrollably and vomits a surprising amount. But she’s also tragic: She keeps 17 bunnies in her bedchamber, and later, in a surprisingly sad moment, reveals that she’s named each of them after the her children who have died.
One of the women in the triangle is Lady Sarah Churchill (perennial woman crush Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough and wife of the Duke of Marlborough, who is always conveniently away at battle. Sarah and Anne were childhood friends and their relationship is complicated: Sarah says some mean things to her Queen, but they also engage in some activities that suggest they’re more than just good friends. Sarah also gets a significant amount of say in what goes on in Anne’s domain, making decisions like whether the nation should go to war and how the palace is run. It’s in that role that she is able to bring her cousin, Abigail Hill (played ingeniously by Emma Stone), to work for her.
Abigail is from an aristocratic family whose patriarch ruined them financially, leaving her desperate to get back to the lifestyle to which she’s accustomed. Through some healing herbs for Anne’s gout and then a few sexual favors, Abigail eventually works her way up to becoming Anne’s Mistress of the Bedchamber. Later, she half-heartedly courts and then marries Samuel Masham (played by T-Swift’s boo and independently talented person, Joe Alwyn), which restores her to a title.
All the while, Abigail and Sarah connive and sabotage one another to remain the titular favorite of the Queen. In one instance, Sarah threatens to go public with the steamy letters she and Anne had exchanged in the past—a threat that kind of backfires. Eventually, through some high-key poisoning that leaves Sarah far from the palace and incommunicado (which Anne takes as a proper ghosting), Abigail secures the top spot in the Anne’s heart and Sarah is banished with her husband to the countryside (and later exiled from the country after accusations that she’s stolen state funds).
It’s all based on the very-real rule of Queen Anne of England, who had the throne from 1702 to 1707, and stays surprisingly true to history for being such a truly strange film. There’s plenty that’s anachronistic, of course, but Sarah Churchill and Anne really were childhood friends, and Abigail really was Sarah’s cousin who eventually, yes, became the Queen’s favorite. That thing about the rabbits wasn’t true, and the nature of their sexualized love triangle has never been fully confirmed (though people have speculated that something was going on since the early 1700s). Abigail did stay in the Queen's good graces, and Sarah really did get dismissed unceremoniously, which also canceled her friendship with Anne. Oh and there's a scene where Anne promises Sarah a palace—that's true, too, though it wasn't ultimately given to her once their friendship had ended.
Now, given all that, could The Favourite technically be considered a rom-com? Well, in our interview with Chloe Angyal, who holds a PhD in media studies with a focus on romantic comedies, we settled on the definition of a rom-com as “a comedic movie, with a romance at its core, that ends with the couple together.”
Let’s look at the facts: It’s a love triangle movie, in which the relationship at the center—arguably Abigail and Anne, since Anne and Sarah’s relationship preexists the film, suggesting it’s a story more about Abigail—is realized at the end. Sure, it's not exactly a happy ending: Though Abigail and Anne "end up together," in a manner of speaking, the final shot shows Anne (whose condition has deteriorated without Sarah's firm control of her life) kind of manipulate Abigail into rubbing her legs, as visions of hopping rabbits materialize menacingly around them. But the definition doesn't say it has to be happy, just that they end up together. The Favourite is also undeniably hilarious, albeit sometimes in confusing ways. (Like the now-infamous scene of the guy getting pelted with fruit—is it okay to laugh at that?)
Most importantly, it’s a story that focuses intently on the desires and feelings of the women at its core—something not unique to rom-coms, but certainly a frequent hallmark of the genre.
Regardless of how you define it, The Favourite is unlike any movie you’ve ever seen—a super weird, wickedly funny instant classic. Here’s hoping the Academy thinks so, too.
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Cady Drell is a writer, editor, researcher and pet enthusiast from Brooklyn.
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