The Favourite and Mary Queen of Scots: Putting the Period in a Period Piece

By: Pallavi Yetur

As the Oscars approach, the clear message is that among 2018’s films about lady English monarchs, The Favourite was the favorite. With ten nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, the film was director Yorgos Lanthimos applying his signature darkly comedic treatment to the story of a crumbling Queen Anne and the two women eager to pick up her pieces. By comparison, The Favourite’s royal counterpart, Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots, was snubbed, handed the obligatory, though undoubtedly well-deserved, nominations in the hair, makeup, and costume categories.

Filmgoers immediately wanted to compare these two films. Understandable, as both are in essence period pieces about queens (they were also coincidentally released nationwide in the United States on the same day and share actor Joe Alwyn in love-interest roles). But upon viewing, it appeared the films didn’t have much in common–other than healthy doses of queenilingus. Stylistically, they couldn’t be compared, with Lanthimos bringing an avant-garde, tongue-in-cheek poetry to his tale, while Rourke’s traditional take on the Tudor period was straight historical depiction. Critics, the Academy, and Rotten Tomatoes picked their Favourite, but there’s irony in pitting these films against each other. The misguided buzz around these two films acted as a microcosm of what Mean Girls famously deemed “girl-on-girl crime.” In forcing these films to compete, we reinforce the conditions under which these monarchs’ stories occurred in real life. What these films have in common more than anything is that they put the necessary ruthlessness of women on center stage.

The conflict in Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots begins when a widowed Mary Stuart returns from France, seeking to reclaim her rightful position as next in line for the monarchy. Mary’s cousin Queen Elizabeth I refuses to step aside and denies all of Mary Stuart’s offers to negotiate lineage, so Mary must begin playing her own chess game. To secure her line, she marries Lord Darnley, her cousin and the first guy to introduce her to the premarital pleasures of the bedroom that won’t bust her hymen. Even when Darnley outs himself as a spineless drunken pill who likes to go down on guys too, Mary understands that despite her change in feeling toward her husband, she, as the Catholic queen, would need to make the marriage work in order to remain legitimate and create legitimate offspring.

Visually and thematically, Mary Queen of Scots is evocative of a Game of Thrones clash among self-proclaimed “rightful” heirs to the throne. Thankfully it realizes–likely to the credit of having a female director–that it doesn’t need to win over its audience by smothering it in naked titties. Even in such a rigid setting, the film has a palpable feminine sensibility–Rourke herself told The Guardian that she “was fighting to put a period in a period movie.” The simultaneous depiction of strength and fragility by both Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie in their respective characters makes one wonder why their performances were overlooked by the Academy. In the end, Queen Elizabeth makes the painful decision to execute the only person in the world who could understand her difficult position as a woman in charge, constantly in danger of being challenged by men. Robbie’s voiceover lends a sore regret to QEI’s final letter to Mary, admitting that she had no choice but to succumb to the pressures (code for penises?) around her–that due to her insecure hold on the crown and the men gunning for her failure, she had to have Mary executed as a show of force and to eliminate a real threat to her power. Ultimately, the film becomes a study in how women must undercut each other in desperate attempts to retain control in a man’s world.

The Favourite’s characters must also play the game of aligning with unsavory men of title in order to undermine the control of another woman–Lady Sarah, played brilliantly deadpan by Rachel Weisz, partners with the Prime Minister Godolphin, while Abigail (Emma Stone) embroils herself with the opposition leader Harley. The central conflict emerges when Sarah, the trusted advisor, confidante, and secret lover of Queen Anne I, is threatened by the arrival of Abigail, who proves to be a quick learner in manipulation. Sarah and Abigail then engage in an underhanded battle of sabotage with the prize being wealth and power via the number one spot in QAI’s bedchamber.

In this story, the most affecting abusive relationships are between women. Sarah strongarms the queen into making political choices that most benefit Sarah and keeps the queen hanging on by sharing sweet memories and sexual favors. More inclined to play with rabbits and eat cake, the queen seems well aware of Sarah’s wiles, as she tells her, “Do not try to do that thing you do.” Being used by someone who makes her feel starved for affection primes the queen to fall right into the bosom of Abigail, who wins over the queen with her seemingly genuine caring nature, soothing QAI’s gout-ridden legs and showing warmth to the rabbit “children” that Sarah openly disdains. But because Abigail’s aims are also self-centered, she too becomes abusive. She poisons Sarah, who is then dragged through the woods by her horse, and steps sadistically on one of the rabbits she feigned fondness for, thus rebreaking Queen Anne’s brittle heart.

In both films, vying for the attention of men is a secondary power play rather than a primary objective. The films’ monarchs are pressured to wed in order to validate their crowns, but none of them pines for marital bliss as an end goal–even Abigail maneuvers a marriage to a lord as insurance should she fall out of favor with the queen. The hints and threats from the men around them supply the underlying tension that leads to panic; these women know their hold is precarious, their time on top fleeting.

In spite of their power, these women are not spared the male gaze problem. In Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth begins unraveling with self-doubt as her external appearance deteriorates from smallpox. QEI combats the combined stress of her physical afflictions, the instability of her authority, and her inability to bear a child with makeup that gets pancakier and wigs more bouffant. Her insecurity culminates in a climactic meeting between her and her cousin whose appearance she has envied since first seeing her portrait.

Similarly, in The Favourite, Sarah operates Queen Anne most effectively when she evokes jealousy by dancing with a man in front of the whole court. It is when Sarah returns disfigured by a massive gash on her face that she realizes her reign is over. In both films, the women are meant to be serious adversaries to men and to each other, but they need to appeal to the visual preferences of men to achieve that. It’s a struggle waged internally. Olivia Colman’s belligerent Queen Anne sums it up when she goes off on a young footman in the hallway: “Look at me! How dare you! Close your eyes!”

Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite show us how aggressive drives in women are viewed as ugliness. Whereas men’s ambition might be similarly ugly, it is more likely to be excused, even expected (the “locker room talk” syndrome). Both stories emphasize the tragedy of women fighting each other within this system, that ruthlessness is about survival and sisterhood is forgotten out of necessity. The films illustrate the difficulties of getting and keeping power when you have a vagina. Even when you’ve proven yourself to be a bad bitch, there will always be a voice telling you that you still need a dick.

Pallavi Yetur was born and raised in Southern California and moved to New York City in 2008. She completed her undergraduate studies at UC San Diego where she turned her pop culture nerddom into academic projects as she studied Communication, and Literature with an emphasis in Writing. She was then fortunate to be able to opt out of prolonged recession unemployment by attending graduate school at NYU where she earned her MA in Mental Health Counseling. Pallavi splits her time between practicing psychotherapy in Manhattan, freelance coaching for a consulting firm, winning silver medals in amateur pole sport competitions, watching lots of movies and TV, and working toward her MFA in Nonfiction at UCR Palm Desert. She lives in Jersey City, where she and her husband do what basic married couples do: watch Bravo, and argue over whose home state has the best tomatoes. @pallaviyetur on Instagram and Twitter.