The Favourite is a widely acclaimed new film in which British Queen Anne of the early 1700s is portrayed in a lesbian triangle with Sarah Churchill (Winston’s ancestor) and Churchill’s ambitious scullery maid. The sexual drama unfolds amid the War of the Spanish Secession, during which Sarah’s husband, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, wages war against France.
Like many contemporary soap-opera-like dramas, especially cable or online miniseries, The Favourite has no heroes or moral destination. Each character is uniquely despicable and vigorously pursues his or her own wants based on personal libido or ambition. The political thriller House of Cards on Netflix embodies and helped popularize this dark genre.
One night several years ago, I binge-watched Boss, a very similar Starz series with Kelsey Grammer as an all-powerful and completely corrupt Chicago mayor. His allies and enemies are all equally venal and contemptible, driven by wants, never duty or virtue. It was sophisticated, captivating, addictive, magnificently crafted and performed. And after six hours of continuous viewing, early in the morning, I felt spiritually and morally depleted, vowing to watch no more.
The Favourite in this fashion portrays a culture similar to Old Testament wicked cities awaiting divine judgment, where none are righteous and all merit destruction. The royal court is absorbed in lobster and duck races or throwing fruit at frolicking nude targets.
Queen Anne, partially crippled by gout, is docile, silly, self-absorbed, and gluttonous, more interested in cake and pet rabbits than her kingdom. Sarah the Duchess of Marlborough is malevolently shrewd and vulgar, effectively ruling Britain through sexually manipulating her lifelong ostensible friend, the queen. Abigail Hill, whose concupiscence and ambition are even more Luciferian, quickly rises from the palace kitchen to the royal bedroom, effectively displacing her quickly discarded patron, Sarah.
Revealingly, when Abigail marries a young army officer, with Queen Anne present, to gain status and income, the wedding is in a royal chapel. But seemingly no clergyman is shown, as though the couple self-marry and God is absent. In reality, Anne staunchly supported the Church of England.
At stake during this fierce boudoir competition in Anne’s court is support for Britain’s war with France, led by the Duke of Marlborough, who appears on screen only briefly, as he commands the Anglo-Dutch army on the continent. His wife, a fervent Whig, puppeteers the Queen toward aggressive war while the Whig parliamentary leader Sidney Godolphin, First Earl of Godolphin, helps. As she ascends, Abigail cajoles the queen against the war while in cahoots with Tory leader Robert Harley, First Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, who’s painted and bewigged like a clown and cavorts like an inebriated sailor.
In the film, there’s only avarice, no patriotism. Tories oppose the war because they as landowners pay the taxes. Whigs as merchants are war profiteers. Sarah supports the war because it advances her husband and enriches them both. The closest example of national purpose is expressed in her warning that the French, if not stopped “over there,” will be over here sodomizing everyone’s wife, as she graphically details.
Contra the film, in reality the national debate over the war was very serious and illustrated very different strategic perspectives on Britain’s emerging global role. France under King Louis XIV was the superpower of its day, with four times Britain’s population, and sought continental if not global domination, solidified through union with the Spanish Empire.
France also supported exiled King James II and later his son, the Old Pretender, as Britain’s rightful monarchs. Parliament had displaced them in the 1688 Glorious Revolution, with King William from Holland and Queen Mary, and later her sister Queen Anne. A Jacobite restoration backed by France would, it was feared, return Britain to both theocratic Catholicism and some form of royal absolutism. Parliament’s ascendency and the trajectory toward constitutional democracy would be arrested.
As military chief of the Anglo-Dutch alliance against French-Spanish forces, The Duke of Marlborough embodied the Whig vision of Britain as the champion of resistance to European royalist autarky. Winston Churchill, in his later writings, celebrated his ancestor as a foreshadowing of his own even more momentous struggle against an even more absolutist European Reich. The Tories of old, as in the 1930s, had naively disarmed and ignored the rising European threat to British sovereignty and liberty, he rued.
None of this very genuine geopolitical drama appears in The Favourite, which prefers to focus on modern self-actualization and sexual politics. At least, creditably, it glorifies neither but admits only to cynicism, self-will, and darkness. There’s depravity but no redemption. The final grim scene shows the former scullery maid Abigail triumphant, sort of, in the queen’s bedroom, nearly crushing with sadistic pleasure one of the royal rabbits. The queen, reasserting her own venal will, commands her instead to massage her gout-engorged legs, amid a sinister cacophony of mass rabbit chirping. Disturbing!
The court of Queen Anne had its share of sexual intrigues and personal malevolence, as do all regimes. Yet most of the major characters from The Favourite were in reality personages of vision and public spirit, not just unbridled libido and craven ambition. The age of Queen Anne is recalled for Britain’s heroic defeat of French domination of Europe, for the maturing of parliamentary governance and rule by impartial law, for growing prosperity and economic sophistication, for the flourishing of arts, literature, and architecture. Much of what we cherish today dates partly to that era.
Modern dramas like The Favourite darkly portray statecraft as merely cynical self-serving manipulation. But governments, nations, and public officials are not outside God’s grace. They are, despite the rebellious spirits of this world, ultimately instruments of his providence. Queen Anne and the Marlboroughs likely knew their role in this celestial drama. As we consider our own nation and state, so should we.
At this time of year, it’s good to recall the Christmas promise: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The darkness that prevails in The Favourite is fortunately never the complete story, among people or nations.
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and co-editor of Providence.