Be aware there are spoilers for The Favourite below.
If you’ve seen The Favourite, then you’ve probably spent a hot minute thinking about its haunting and bizarre ending — after all, it wouldn’t be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie if you didn’t walk out feeling a little confused and super bummed out. But unlike many of his previous films, The Favourite has one of the most concrete endings yet, and it’s as downright dreary and depressing as his other films.
The Favourite is a deliciously vicious revenge comedy structured around Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her relationships with her best friend Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough, and Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) who has fallen from nobility into the dregs of poverty. But Abigail has no intention of remaining a scullery maid and when she arrives at the castle looking for work, she immediately starts needling herself into the hearts and beds of the higher ranks, splintering the relationship between Sarah and the queen.
The Favourite opens with glimpses into the bond between Queen Anne and Lady Sarah, giving us a brief and exact portrait of their dynamic. Anne, for all her power as ruler, is powerless to Sarah, who handles her and the country in her brash, unyielding way. Obsessed with Queen and country, Sarah uses her intimacy with the queen to control matters of state, which includes continuing the war between England and France no matter the cost — including possibly the life of her husband, who leads the British army on the front lines of the war. Anne herself has little taste for politics and would just as well let Sarah make the hard decisions while she anguishes over her ill-health and personal tragedies. Over the years, Anne lost seventeen children, and in their stead, she keeps seventeen rabbits; one for each dead child.
When Abigail arrives she is the underdog, and at a low point, quite literally covered in shit and mud after being groped on he way out of a carriage and falling flat on her face. Her mad father, who we learn burnt his house down with himself inside it, lost her in a game of cards when she was a girl and she spent the last years of her life married to “a balloon-shaped German man with a thin cock,” forced into an unwanted marriage and life of sexual subjugation at every turn.
It’s all-too-easy to take sympathy on Abigail, and the film’s clever writing is matched with perfect casting; Emma Stone’s oh-so-likeable “cute ears and wide eyes” make you root from the girl from the start. She’s clever and clearly knows how to manipulate the people around her in her quest to get her title back, but most of these manipulations seem helpful or kind-spirited — soothing the queen’s gout, refusing to betray her lady, flirting with the pretty young aristocrat who fancies her. By contrast, Sarah is curt and sometimes cruel. She tells the queen she looks like a badger, raises the land tax by double to fund her war, and refuses to pay any mind to Anne’s bunnies (“It is macabre,” she says with a disproving scowl.)
But as the film’s war of conniving wages on, the truth behind the women’s disposition begins to shine through. Abigail’s surface kindness hides a cruelty and killer spirit. When her suitor comes to her chamber, she doesn’t kiss him, she bites him. When Sarah threatens to put her back on the street, Abigail poisons her, and in doing so, disfigures her face when Sarah falls off her horse. Sarah sees her for what she is, but the queen sees only a friend and a beautiful new lover. “I like when she puts her tongue inside me,” she tells Sarah, refusing to send Abigail away. The rift between them grows so much that Anne has Sarah expelled from the castle grounds, setting the stage for the film’s haunting ending.
The Favourite marks a unique entry in Lanthimos’ career — it’s the first film of his he didn’t write with his regular writing partner Efthymis Filippou — and the result is a film that’s a bit less outright strange (though still twisted) and more much accessible than his previous outings. But The Favourite still has the filmmaker’s fingerprints all over it, and he worked with original writer Deborah Davis extensively to reshape the tone of the film, focusing on relationships instead of politics and spent longer than he usually does honing the story to his vision before recruiting Tony McNamara help him write the script.
Lanthimos writes weird endings, and they don’t work for everyone. They don’t even always work for me. The ending of Dogtooth and The Lobster infuriated me. The ending of The Killing of a Sacred Deer disturbed me. But the ending to The Favourite is something else — his most complete and well-crafted ending yet. Though certainly, still ambiguous. It is also one of his cruelest yet, not in the raw primal way Killing of a Sacred Deer, but with a quietly depressing nod to the cruelty of fate and a sting of honesty that bites even harder for its true-life inspiration. It’s a slow-burn sadness that sticks with you.
As Anne’s health fails, the Duchess of Marlborough suffers in her own way at her estate. They are both prideful and petty, but the childhood friends do love each other, and so they miss each other. With the helpful intervention of some political players, it is devised that Sarah will write Anne a letter asking forgiveness; an olive branch of submission that will allow them to mend their fences. But Abigail sees how eagerly the queen awaits her mail each day and screens it, intercepting Sarah’s letter and burning it. She tells the queen she suspects Sarah was diverting money to her husband’s account and Anne rejects the idea out of hand, but when Sarah’s letter never arrives she uses the lie as an excuse to banish Sarah from the country. Waiting for a letter of her own, Sarah watches the entrance to her palace from the window, and when she sees the queen’s soldiers riding up, she plasters on a shaky smile and tells her husband that she’s grown tired of England.
That’s the last we see of Sarah. In the film’s final scene, Queen Anne finally sees Abigail completely unmasked as the sadistic self-serving socialite that she is. Relishing in the luxuries of her new life as the queen’s favourite, a sick little smile crosses her face and she steps a heeled foot onto one of Anne’s beloved rabbits. It’s pure, unadulterated cruelty. The rabbit sequels and pisses on the floor, while Abigail just keeps crushing it, snickering to herself. But the helpless animal’s cries draw Anne’s attention, and finally Anne truly sees her “friend” for the monster she is.
The queen beckons Abigail to massage her agonizing legs, as she has done many times before, but this time it’s different. What is an always sensual and often erotic act has become something dark and miserable; a grim power play. Anne juts her fingers into Abigail’s hair and pulls, pushing her head down in an act of dominance and punishment. And as Abigail sits there with a grimace plastered across her face, an image of the rabbits starts to take over the frame, three images imposed on each other: Abigail and Anne faces, both miserable and suffering, and Anne’s rabbits, hop-hop-hopping along, fluffy little reminders of her grief, slowly overtaking everything.
It’s a weird place to end the film, and like his previous endings, there’s a moment of panic when you realize “Oh my god, it’s just going to end right here,” right before the credits roll. And then it does. But unlike the ambiguities of Killing of a Sacred Deer and especially The Lobster, The Favourite‘s ending makes itself very clear. All three women are now stuck in their own personal hell.
Abigail, who escaped her horrible marriage and a life of sexual submission is now slave to another master. “My life is like a maze I continually think I’ve gotten out of only to find another corner right in front of me,” Abigail tells her miserable new husband mid-way through the film. By the end, she may no longer be laying among the sickly and she won’t have to watch unwanted men jerk off at her, but her life of luxuries is dependent on the queen’s favor and she remains trapped in submission; still locked in her maze of sexual servitude.
Sarah’s fate similarly leave her trapped in her nightmare. The woman who cared about queen and country above all else, is exiled from both. Sarah was willing to sacrifice her husband to the war if it was the necessary price, she loved her queen very literally for most of their lives, and now she is banished from her life there. Her hell is in her absence.
As for the queen, her health is rapidly degenerating and she is more or less helpless without Sarah’s stern missives to follow. “She saved me my whole life, without her I am nothing,” when Sarah first goes missing, and there is truth in it. Sarah was strict, but always with love. She would not let the queen have sugar, lest it hurt her stomach. Left to her own devices, Anne binges on blue cake, throwing up between bites. Left in Aibigail’s care, the queen asks what would happen if she fell asleep in her mud bath and slipped under. “Imagine it’s hot chocolate,” Abigail says. To be with Abigail is to drown and choke on your indulgences. Without Sarah to care for her, Anne really and truly is left with no one who loves her, just her rabbits — the stand-ins for her true happiness — and the very manifestation of her trauma and grief take over the screen until they multiply and are all that remain.