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'The Favourite' is a Masterful Study of Gamesmanship and Power

I wasn’t prepared for a horror story about two women playing a conceptual tennis game against each other in the royal court.

by Cameron Kunzelman
Mar 29 2019, 8:25pm

All images courtesy Fox Searchlight

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

Big spoilers for the film The Favourite. Seriously. This column is all about the movie this week. Content warning for mention of abuse in the movie.

The Favourite was cruelly robbed of the Academy Award for Best Picture a few short weeks ago, but at the time I didn’t know that. It’s only been since the film has appeared on home release that I’ve had a chance to sit down and watch it, and it wasn’t what I was expecting. I had heard that it was funny and cruel. I had seen a lot of Twitter chat about sex. But what I wasn’t prepared for was a horror story about two women playing a conceptual tennis game against each other where Queen Anne, the head of state, was the ball and the court is, well, the royal court. The Favourite is just as much a film about the awful possibility of games as it is a period drama about big personalities slamming against each other, and I want to take my column this week to work up the film’s ending and what it has to say about the dangers of play.

A refresher course on plot if you, unlike me, are cultured and watched this film in an honest-to-god movie theater several months ago: Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) has established a life-long relationship with Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman), and it has culminated in a scenario in which Marlborough rules England in the Queen’s place by virtue of a complicated toxic relationship that swings wildly between emotional abuse, physical abuse, and genuine care. It is messy, in a particularly human way, and it is into this scenario that Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) enters. Formerly a lady and now a maid, Hill works and charms her way into the courtly intrigue, and eventually places herself as a rival to Marlborough for the Queen’s favor.

That’s a sketch of the plot, of course, but it gets us to the part of the film that I find most interesting: gamesmanship. After she learns that the Queen and Marlborough are in a sexual relationship, Hill constantly works that angle until she manages to place herself nude and wild-haired in the Queen’s bed. She’s dismissed, but later is called upon to rub the Queen’s “legs,” an event that quickly becomes sexual (and I am sure has created an entire new euphemistic universe). This is the first real move of the game, the event that puts Hill in direct contest with Marlborough. It’s the event that inaugurates the title of the film: who gets to be the favourite?

The Favourite

Late in the film, once most of the plot has shaken out and things are barrelling toward their awful conclusion, Hill and Marlborough have a conversation about games. This is not their first. Earlier they had discussed how Hill’s father had ruined his reputation and squandered his land and funds, eventually losing his own daughter to a game of whist. And in this final conversation, it becomes clear that Hill continues to play games with her own life—simply with more control. As she’s throwing Marlborough out of the royal apartments and security her victory, Marlborough says something puzzling: “Oh my God, you actually think you have won.”

“Haven’t I?” Hill replies.

With a serene look on her face, the kind of expression an angel might have in a period-appropriate painting, Marlborough makes a simple statement: “We were playing very different games.”

This is the kind of claim that forces you to think through the entirety of the plot of the film so far. At each point, the two women have been neck-and-neck for the Queen’s favor. They present themselves as two possible worlds. Lady Marlborough is vicious, but also truthful to a cruel fault and willing to temper the Queen’s mood and take some of the pressure from the burden of ruling a country. The film works through the problems with this, though, and makes a clear case for why Hill’s permissive mode of always saying yes to the Queen might make her a compelling alternative. Hill appreciates the Queen’s rabbits, where Marlborough scorns them. She encourages the Queen to drink and eat where Marlborough does not. She is the eternal yes where Marlborough was so often a mean and ungenerous no.

And so the film presents these two modes of capturing favor as a kind of game. It’s as much of a game as whist or duck shooting, and it is grounded in understanding Parliament, the people of the country, the tax policies, and the long list of those with power who could wield it for or against the Queen. When we follow these structures of gameplay in the film, we encounter some soft rules about trust and giving one’s word, but the real rules have to deal with navigation. Who will you talk to? Who will be your ally? What will you do to secure that alliance?

The final scene of the film returns us to leg rubbing. The Queen, who has suffered something like a stroke and has continued mobility problems, sees Hill place one of her rabbits beneath her shoe and cruelly press down on it, emitting a terrifying squeak. With great effort, she stands up against a wall and demands that Hill come and rub her legs. This is not the evening sexual affair artfully lit by candlelight that we’ve seen previously in the film, and as Hill kneels and begins to rub, Queen Anne places her hand on her head and latches into her hair, tearing at it while also pressing Hill down into the ground. The film cuts back and forth, and eventually fades between, the Queen satisfied, yet opaque, expression and Hill’s wide, empty eyes. These shots linger, going on and on.

The Favourite

The Favourite does this wonderful thing where you know that Queen Anne is the head of state but you forget it in the courtly game. We see her repeatedly doing things that a queen does, and her constant hounding of servants (“Look at me! Don’t you even look at me!”) is played for both comedy and tragedy. But those feelings and their tone obscure the structural relation of power that comes blazing back into focus during that final scene between the Queen and Hill: this was presented as a kind of game between two women for their own fate, and it’s Abigail Hill’s mistake to see it that way.

It’s not a tennis match where the Queen is ball. It’s a tennis match and the Queen is the court, the rackets, the ball, the air you breathe, and the ground you walk on. Because the rules of the world that Hill lives in are the Queen’s rules. Entering into a structural relationship with that kind of power can only ever end in violence and structural oppression. Now you’re playing with power, after all.

When Lady Marlborough says that Abigail Hill is playing the incorrect game, she’s telling her that they’re in full WarGames mode. The only way to win is not to play, and by virtue of “losing” the competition for being the Queen’s favourite, Lady Marlborough wins. She is ejected from the game and, after all is said and done, banished from England altogether. Through the final scene, we can read the film “backward” and see Marlborough’s vicious relationship with Queen Anne as a brutal negotiation with power, a purposeful maneuver to make sure that she is never (or no longer) in the position that Hill is at the end of the film, he eyes wide with the recognition of what he life is like with a Queen who wants her, does not trust her, and is treating her the same way that Hill treated the rabbit.

Now you’re playing with power, after all.

When all the dominoes fell at the end of the film, I came away stunned in general, but also considering games. Like Abigail Hill, it is easy to get caught up in the play of the game without pausing to look at the structure of the game. Many people are up in arms about monetization strategies in games, and yet some of the most popular titles are free-to-play smorgasbords trapped in microtransaction hell. We mourn the death of the single player experience while, as a games culture, we’re glomming onto every Destiny-like that appears on our radar.

For me, The Favourite has a lesson about games and life in general, and it’s this: keeping your eye on the ball is never sufficient. It’s never about the thing that’s right in front of you. You have to be wary about the thing that conditions you to see the ball, the context that you’re living it, and you need to operate at the level of that context. If you’re not addressing the structure of things, then you’re playing a the wrong game.