When I read that the website, Metacritic, had given the film, The Favourite, a quality score of “universal acclaim,” a quantitative score of 91 and characterized it as one of the 10 best films of 2018, and since it swept the British Independent Film Awards, without reading any of the reviews, I immediately placed the film as number one on my must-see list. After all, Yorgos Lanthimos’ (The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer) Irish production from Element received five Golden Globe nominations from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
After two last minute postponements, I finally went to see the film last evening. If you want to see a movie with absolutely superb acting in a magnificent setting, go see the movie. Olivia Colman as Queen Anne (nicknamed by Lady Sarah Churchill as Mrs. Morley) received a very well-deserved best actress nomination. Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Churchill (nicknamed Mrs. Freeman) and Emma Stone as Abigail Masham (née Hill), Lady Sarah’s cousin, were both, very unusually, nominated for best-supporting actress. By the rules of the game, at least two of the three have excellent chances of winning. But what’s in a name? Is not everything malleable? All that is presumed to be fixed evaporates in a puff of smoke.
Perhaps the wonderful costuming (Sandy Powell) alone is sufficient reason to see the film, especially on the big screen. The frumpy and sometimes supposedly elegant (as in one of the horse-riding scenes) clothes worn by the grieving and despairing witless and dull queen stand in stark contrast to the high style of Lady Churchill’s androgynous court costumes and the increasingly flamboyant and over-the-top nouveau riche striving of Abigail (less successful in her case). Even the dresses of the maids and ladies-in-waiting convey the relationship of lordship and bondage in a sick social hierarchy.
Although there is no sign of Queen Anne’s lace in the movie, a ruthless fellow maid tricks Abigail into washing a floor with bare hands and hot water heavily laced with lye. There is an ingenious use of bandaging when Abigail wraps her hand, burned when she put her bare hand of soapy water to wash the stone floor, with her knowledge of herbal remedies, heals herself and gradually unwraps and throws away the bandage to gradually reveal a striving self-interested, ambitious and calculating, but absolutely gorgeous witch, at least according to the film rather than actual history.
Olivia Colman as Queen Anne is pitiful and pathetic, repulsive and revolted, jealous and needy, incompetent and moody, subject to both impulsive decisions and procrastination, but never, as one critic described her, someone with “guileless charm” or, as another described her, a person with both “awareness and intelligence that are palpable.” When backed into a corner where she was unwilling to go, she revealed herself as not absolutely spineless and would respond with fury and absolute commands, but the anger is never backed up by thought, reflection or even a plan. The queen is neither playful nor profound, a precise mirror for the film, though in history she proved generally to be a credit to her nation.
Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Churchill is both lordly and possessed of a calculating honesty. But she also reveals herself as somewhat impervious to counter-argument, magnified in the film when her historically known love of discourse and argument are not put on display. However, one critic that I read this morning wrote of her as having “advised the queen on policy matters that she didn’t understand.” The critic is both an historical ignoramus and even misses her characterization in the movie. In fact, rarely have I read so many reviews that are both gushing while failing to note, that other than the great acting, the costumes and the set, the movie is bawdy but not brilliant and, for me, mostly a bloody bore.
Emma Stone as Abigail, as an abused child who was lost in a card game by her alcoholic father (was this true, a historical fabrication or one original to the movie?), developed a patina of innocence to cover what is gradually and misleadingly revealed in the film to be a calculating cold heart in the costume of a caring initially wide-eyed ingénue. Abigail is introduced in the movie by being pinched on the derrière as she leaves her carriage and lands splat in the mud. This is a very unsubtle introduction to sexual abuse and the unrepentant power of men who believe that they can grab pussies without complaint. In the movie, a true and sensitive friend to Queen Anne, whatever her political myopia, she comes across as struggling with an unresolved contradiction between caring and conniving. Later, Sarah will be dragged through the mud when she falls off her horse after being drugged by Abigail, again a very unsubtle reference to her newly fallen status. And one hears the echo of Jonathan Swift’s lines from “The Windsor Prophecy,” “They assassine when younge, and poison when old.”
A scene in which Lady Churchill teaches Abigail to shoot birds is revealing. Abigail does learn accuracy, but uses her acuity to splash the blood of the bird she shot on Lady Churchill’s dress. Presumably, her unbridled competition with a condescending mentor becomes fused and allows her quick learning to become diffused and mis-directed, resulting in the destruction of all three female leads in the movie. Only that has nothing to do with history and, therefore, satire, and everything to do with facile creativity and fake news.
If you want to avoid my least favourite movie of 2018, which also has the worst music score (mixing the classics with distracting scratchy modernist and brutalist contrapuntal electronic beats) and editing that is full of affectations rather than artful, do not see the movie. If you do go because you expect to see a good film and not simply terrific acting, you may not be as furious as I was after you leave the theatre, but you may be terribly disappointed. Crazy Rich Asians may also have been a case of false advertising and a bad movie, but I simply did not like it. I hated The Favourite.
First, because of the fake news and hype. Here are some summary headlines:
- “Iconoclastic revisionism – iconoclastic, yes, but “fake news” and boundaryless invention would be a better description than revisionism.
- “Largely based in fact” when the film is only tangentially based in fact.
- “Brilliant restoration comedy”
- Is the reference to xenophobic nationalism, transferred to the beginning of the eighteenth century popular opinion re the war with France, that passes as wit, funny? “They’ll be angrier when the French are sodomizing their wives and planting their fields with garlic.” By way of contrast, again read the words of a true satirist, Jonathan Swift’s “The Windsor Prophecy”
Then shall the tall black Daventry Bird
Speak against peace right many a word;
And some shall admire his coneying wit,
For many good groats his tongue shall slit.
- Is Lady Churchill’s zinger to Queen Anne’s request to show affection to her rabbits an example of epigrammatic snap: “Love has its limits.”
- What about the visual jokes?
- When on her wedding night, preoccupied with her machinations in court, Abigail coldly turns her back on her husband and masturbates him, is this supposed to be funny?
- Is the portrayal of the lords of the land as buffoons throwing pomegranates at a fat and naked servant supposed to be satire?
- Is the portrait of the bewigged lords and cackling cheering courtiers betting on a duck race supposed to be a clever comment? If so, on what?
- The scene with the wildly exaggerated courtly formality played out in an absolutely absurd bird courting (pun intended) in the mode of avant-garde period dance that imprints modern movements onto the refined and precisely scripted motions and movements between the genders of the period, in this case, between Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Lord Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), is, indeed, very funny, but it has little to do with satirizing the courtly manners of the early eighteenth century Stuart court and is certainly of no relevance to commenting on either the court manners of Elizabeth May or the bad manners of Donald Trump, though all members of the Queen Anne court in the first decade of the eighteenth century and the Donald Trump court in the second decade of the twenty-first century were and are characterized by sniping mixed with false flattery, menacing bullying and sycophancy. Instead, the movie is simply ill-mannered.
- “Arch political satire,” but the men who held the real power are mostly invisible and the men who held power on the surface did appear, but as emasculated ninnies and wimps, and there is not a single glimpse of an insightful political instinct.
- Prince George of Denmark, Queen Anne’s husband, is never seen or even referred to, as best I can remember, though he does not die until 1706 whereas the film starts in 1705.
- The Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), Sarah’s husband, a true war hero, makes a cameo appearance at the beginning of the film never to be seen again – or he may have been in one of the last scenes, but it was too confusing to know.
- Lord Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) was not a racy lad or subsequently a put-upon cuckold; he did marry Abigail and receive his lordship as a reward for the affection and grace Abigail gave Anne; in the film, however, Abigail’s betrothed comes across as a handsome fun-loving ambitious man who is turned into a cuckold, but there is no transition or understanding provided.
- Nicholas Hoult as the Tory speaker of the House of Lords, Lord Harley, is portrayed as a rouged fop obsessed with high fashion and ostentatious frippery, though underneath his outrageous makeup and wig, a handsome man who was in fact a cousin of Abigail, but that is not noted in the film; except for that one moment, in spite of being in many scenes, he too remains hidden.
- “Scintillating black comedy of manners,” but the pampering of the queen is obscene rather than objectionable and the concern for her obvious extreme loneliness, intended perhaps to lend a glimmer of heart to the movie, instead of being painful, comes across as literally a pain in the ass
- “Boldly feminine-centric” – nonsense, even though the women have the top power, the movie is misogynist, especially because the women are both in charge and portrayed as different expressions of witches.
- Most generally, the movie is unequivocally misanthropic.
- Thematic stupidity:
“Power is a fickle thing. There are those who hold it that have no idea what it is, and those that grasp for it, terrified of its loss. It slithers between people.”
However, things are not fickle; people are. Further, Lady Churchill, when she lost power, certainly understood it and was truly determined to use it for what she saw as the good of the country. Though determined to hold onto power, as portrayed in the movie, she was not terrified at its loss, but was a true believer in the slogan that “What goes around comes around.” And it did.
- The affectations of the camera work, though my youngest son may comment that, although I have recovered my sight in both eyes, I remain blind to the brilliance of visual story-telling.
- The love affair of Queen Anne and Abigail superimposed with hordes of bunnies!!!!
- Wide angles and warped effects of rooms and distorted representations of objects, as perhaps a negative commentary on the possibility of objective truth, tells us more about the film itself than the period or the present.
- Fish eye effects zeroing in on the goldfish bowl of the palace, whereas the scheming and backbiting are normally hidden from view.
- The camera in constant motion lest we be allowed time for reflection
- The angular framing in a film that imitates like the ugly and dysfunctional entry to the ROM.
Then there is the script. A Golden Globe award for best screenplay! Someone has to be kidding. Though Deborah Davies and Tony MacNamara were widely lauded for their script, I found that clever filthy quips do not add up to good jokes let alone brilliant writing. Is Emma Stone as Abigail walking down a long palace hall saying “fuck” over and over again supposed to be scintillating? And what about the division of the movie into chapters with titles meant themselves to be quips, but which can only be read as either obvious and simplistic, or irrelevant and absolutely inexplicable?
To be continued – Part II tomorrow on History and Film