I think that when you watch a movie, you like to feel…comforted. I mean sure, you want a movie to challenge you, to invigorate you, to transport you to another world that’s exciting and fun to watch—but there are some places you don’t want a movie to go. You never want to suddenly feel out of step, like you’re playing catch up, like everything is out of sequence and that the story doesn’t line up. You want to feel in control, and never lost.
Unfortunately, when the credits roll for The Favourite, people seem to have experienced the latter. The ending of The Favourite is indeed a strange one: Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) orders Abigail (Emma Stone) to “rub her legs”. Then Anne, during her lowest moment, grabs Abigail’s hair, holding her in place as Abigail winces.
The moment is made even more surreal as the images of Anne and Abigail are stacked on one another. Then their images fade out as footage of Anne’s 17 rabbits fade in.
However in control you felt throughout this movie, it’s totally reasonable to feel lost during these final moments. And that’s not because the movie is too smart for you—it’s because the movie changes stylistically to make its grand point. This ending could easily be shot in a regular, more straightforward way and make the exact same point. But because we have these weird shots of rabbits taking over the screen, we focus more on the style than the actual components of the scene.
So let’s move past the style and focus on those components. To get there, we’ll look at the different ways a movie can end, the motifs that indicate how to read an ending, and then finally why the ending of The Favourite makes sense when you recognize Queen Anne as the main character.
Philosophical endings vs. resolutions
As Chris talked about in his piece on The Lobster, there’s a major difference between philosophical endings and resolutions. And part of what’s tripping people up is they think that The Favourite has a philosophical ending. But it doesn’t, and I’ll show why.
Resolutions are what we come to expect from movies. Both Hardball and Rookie of the Year feature baseball teams trying to win the championship, so naturally you’d expect the movie to end with them either winning or losing the championship. Easy said, easy done. Right?
But sometimes you have a movie like The Lobster that exists outside the normal world, that has a dystopian setting, that defamiliarizes the idea of love and solitude. The Lobster world is a strange one that forces philosophical introspection from the viewer, so it makes sense for its ending to be open-ended, ambiguous, and…well, philosophical. However peculiar the ending may be, it probably doesn’t completely ruin you—the style of the finale doesn’t really diverge from the style of the rest of the movie.
That’s the big difference with The Favourite. For the most part, it’s a pretty straightforward movie. Sure it’s basically Big Brother meets British royalty, and sure the characters all talk in this black-comedic way—but compared to other Lanthimos movies, The Favourite very much feels like it could have actually happened.
And it kind of did actually happen! In the early 1700s there was a Queen Anne in frail health, and she was heavily influenced by Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) during a time of war. Sure, plenty of the details are obscured, but the movie does have known figures doing sketchy stuff that doesn’t feel too far off from modern politics. It may be a bit satirical, but it’s a far, far cry from a movie where people turn into animals if they don’t find love (aka The Lobster).
So that’s one major reason The Favourite’s ending throws people off—much like The Lobster, it’s an ending that doesn’t feel like a real resolution. If a movie like Back to the Future ended with Marty driving his Delorean down the street, slowly inching more and more towards 88 miles per hour…and then the movie cut to black and the credits rolled? That would be insane. This blockbuster shouldn’t have this ending that makes you wonder if the movie was trying to make a philosophical point the entire time—it ends with Marty getting back home, as expected.
But The Favourite doesn’t have a philosophical ending either—it just has an abrupt switch in tone and style. This is a normal resolution filmed in an artsy way, and there are plenty of clues throughout the movie to understand it.
A different kind of resolution
Remember when I mentioned Hardball and Rookie of the Year? Two stories about baseball teams that obviously end with the teams either winning or losing the championship? Well…neither of those movies end that way. And that’s because their stories aren’t about baseball.
Really Hardball is about teamwork, camaraderie, proving your worth. And Rookie of the Year is about youth, friendship, believing in yourself. Baseball is the catalyst, but all those themes are the skeleton of the story, what drive the characters and provide catharsis.
In Hardball, when G-Baby gets shot, his brother motivates his team and coach to continue playing, to go out and fight in the name of G-Baby; in Rookie of the Year, when Henry loses his ability to pitch, he knows it’s time to enjoy his childhood and spend as much time as he can with his friends—those are endings. That is resolution. It may not be the obvious way to resolve the story, but it fits, right? You don’t really question it, even though those movies deviate from what is seemingly the driving force of both movies: baseball.
That’s how we should think of The Favourite. Other than how it’s filmed, the ending doesn’t really deviate at all from anything we’ve seen in the movie:
- Anne has always had a right-hand woman tending to her sexual needs.
- Abigail fought to become the woman that looks after Anne.
- Anne’s 17 rabbits have been a prominent fixture throughout the movie.
All the elements are there—it’s just how it’s all presented that throws us off.
Let’s boil that down to the three main motifs we’ve seen during the movie: sex; power struggles; animals.
- Both Sarah and Abigail used sex to get what they wanted from Anne.
- Sarah used Anne’s trust in her to badmouth Abigail, while Abigail poisoned Sarah and cultivated a story about Sarah stealing from the monarch.
- Each of the 17 rabbits symbolizes a child Anne lost.
Once again: apart from how it’s filmed, nothing in that final scene is out of the ordinary. All the clues are in place. So what does that final scene indicate?
What the ending of The Favourite means
When we use those three motifs to decipher the ending, an interesting conclusion emerges: this movie is about Queen Anne. The movie seems like it’s about the battle between Sarah and Abigail, but really it’s about what their fight does to the queen.
Let’s take a look:
Motif #1: Sex
When Anne grabs Abigail’s hair and forces her to “rub her legs”, for the first time in the movie, it feels like Anne is treating her personal adviser as a servant. Where the the sex once felt romantic with Sarah and impulsive with Abigail, it now feels sadistic, involuntary, passionless.
Motif #2: Power struggles
Whatever joy Anne once took with either Sarah or Abigail has been evaporated at the end of the movie. Because of Abigail and Sarah’s feud, they drove one another to despicable extents. Sarah turned Abigail into a power-hungry vixen; and Abigail caused Sarah to abuse her relationship with Anne. Because of the brawl, the love of Anne’s life had been arrested and all she’s left with is a woman she no longer recognizes.
Motif #3: Animals
And how does Anne know that Abigail has changed? Because she sees Abigail place her foot over one of Anne’s pet rabbits and press it into the ground.
When Abigail and Anne met for the first time earlier in the film, they bonded over Anne’s rabbits. Anne revealed that each of her rabbits symbolized a lost child, and she saw the hurt and empathy in Abigail’s eyes—that moment was their connection.
Anne even says to Abigail about her lost children:
“Each one that dies, a little bit of you goes with them.”
So when Anne sees Abigail press her shoe into that rabbit, Anne’s demeanor changes. She denies Abigail’s help getting out of bed. She has a look of disgust as she grabs Abigail’s hair and forces to Abigail to sexually please her. Anne has seemingly lost all love and compassion that was alive in her during that somber moment with Abigail earlier in the film.
It becomes clear that Anne, who is in dire health and has no family, needed the people in her life to keep her going. And now that she’s lost both Sarah and Abigail during her final years (in real life she would die just a few years later), her reaction is to go to a dark place and demean someone she once bonded with.
Thus, the final shot signifies how fragile and vulnerable Anne was throughout the movie. Little by little, a little bit of Anne died as the people in her life passed on. So as the images of Anne, her confidant, and her babies fade from the screen, we see Anne’s humanity fading with them.
In the end, the rabbits didn’t just represent her 17 children—they also symbolized the life Anne had left in her. And now that they’re gone, she’s crossed a critical threshold at the end of her life from which she cannot come back.