Monday, December 17, 2018

I'm saying she was "the Mistress of the Robes," yeah? "Keeper of the Privy Purse," "Groom of the Stole," "Lady of the Bedchamber"... if you know what I mean


Our reminder that it is not only power that corrupts, but lack of power, too, The Favourite wallows in the sickness of humankind.  But (importantly) always in an amusing way.

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
With Olivia Colman (Anne Stuart, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland), Rachel Weisz (Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough), Emma Stone (Abigail Hill), James Smith (Sidney Godolphin, Earl of Godolphin), and Nicholas Hoult (Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford)

Spoiler alert: moderate

There is only one thing really "wrong" with The Favourite, which is that its director, Yorgos Lanthimos, and its cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, have made one fine-looking movie for themselves, a damn solid example of doin'-a-Kubrick by way of rigorous control and natural light (particularly candlelight), and taken together these elements offer their film a complexion shining with constant tension and potential energy—which Lanthimos and Ryan then routinely scar right the hell up with some of the most bizarre and attention-seeking lensing you'll ever see in a movie, to the extent that there's one shot where they manage to squeeze the entire fifty yard length of a big hall at the Hatfield House (playing Kensington Palace, circa 1710) into the frame, making each entrance on either side of it simultaneously visible whilst their camera tracks its subjects and the great long windows running along the hall roll like waves, almost like you're watching them through a kaleidoscope.

And I feel like this example doesn't even do any justice to my case, because this shot, coming at the fulcrum point of the film, the moment when one of its titular favorites has begun the overthrow of the other, actually does service the story, and it's kind of great.  Everywhere else, though, unless I'm missing something fundamental, it's distractingly arbitrary, the decisionmaking process seemingly coming down to the question "is it going to be a wide enough shot that there will be significant background elements?", and if the answer is "yes," then the last stop on their decision tree was "sure, if we feel like it, we'll throw the fish-eye lens on and see how it shakes out."  The result is a movie that is a series of technically flawless images oft-interrupted by grotesquely ugly ones, which is sort-of the point, though you're pretty sure Lanthimos and Ryan are way prouder of the parts that are grotesquely ugly, their thematic justification being, "Yes, but are courtly politics not whimsical and warped?"  The short version is that I can't say that my impression of Lanthimos as an overgrown film student, left on me by the last Lanthimos film I saw, and the worst movie I've ever reviewed, The Lobster, has changed.

Well, it's either The Lobster or Gamera: Super Monster, and that's no place for an art film to be.

Still, it's the kind of wacky formal gambit that doesn't hurt anybody, and it's a gambit one could grow to love as part and parcel to everything the film does right, which is practically everything else.  Touted as Lanthimos' "most accessible" piece, you should never forget what it means when a film critic uses that phrase: it means "you're a stupid asshole, but you might like this one because maybe this time you'll get it" (one should not forget, either, that this comes from a place of insecurity, for film critics, a breed possessed of a single unmarketable skill and their self-image as cultural gatekeepers crucially dependent upon "getting it," are terrified of not getting it, and so when presented with something with nothing there to get, they will naturally panic).  Anyway, you should never listen to critics, but they're right as far as it goes about The Favourite, the first film by Lanthimos that sees him working from a script by someone else, in this instance a screenplay originated two decades ago by Deborah Davis and reworked more recently by Tony McNamara, that concerns itself with the remarkable power struggle surrounding the doddering, demented Queen Anne in the latter days of her increasingly-unreliable reign.  And if that makes it sound like the screenplay credit ought to have included the phrase "inspired by the wicked gossip of Sarah Churchill, the disgraced Duchess of Marlborough," it should.

That nearly sums up the plot, but to be a little more detailed: in the first decade of the 18th century, Sarah has effectively made herself the eminence grise behind the British throne, presently occupied by the sickly and weak-minded Anne Stuart, for whom Sarah serves in turn as secret lover, trusted advisor, and nagging spouse; Sarah has found this position advantageous not only for herself and for her husband, the Duke of Marlborough, commander of the Grand Alliance's forces in the ongoing War of Spanish Succession, but for Anne and Great Britain itself, whose interests, as she seems to perceive them, coincide precisely with her own.  Perhaps she's even right, but one day Sarah makes the mistake of inviting her begraggled (indeed, literally shit-covered) cousin, Abigail Hill, into Anne's palace, albeit mostly just to ameliorate the family embarrassment Abigail represents.  Put to work in the bowels of the palace, Abigail certainly has no intention of staying there, and increasingly contrives to make her services indispensable to the Queen, thereby reaping all the favor that Sarah has come to take for granted as hers by right.  Soon the women are at each other's throats, or as much as they can be without outright murdering the other (and even then they get awfully close), and each finds allies in the pro-war and pro-peace camps of Parliament, especially one Robert Harley, who essentially drafts Abigail into the Tory cause of disengaging from the war with France and (more importantly) getting rid of all those bothersome taxes that Anne needs to pay for the war with France.  Yet, like Sarah before him, Robert shall find that Abigail isn't about to do anything that doesn't benefit Abigail first.

It's relatively straightforward, then, and the most surprising thing about The Favourite, given that "being a history" isn't anywhere close to its primary goal, is that it nevertheless represents a powerfully-persuasive interpretation of what did actually happen in the final years of Anne's reign (the biggest elision being Prince Consort George, whom Davis and McNamara have wisely wished into the cornfield).  In fact, it's persuasive enough that it's a good thing that everyone involved is long since dead, given that its interpretation draws its basic framework more from the most scabrous Tory propaganda of the time than it does the scholarship of today.  But The Favourite needs the Anne who's not-even-borderline mentally incompetent, and it needs the Abigail who's a coiled viper in Anne's lap, in order to be what it really is, which is a full-tilt, take-no-prisoners satire of power when it's wielded by an arbitrary madperson so riven by illness, cupidity, and age that even though random fate and bullshit systems have conspired to grant her the most powerful office in the world, it is only through courtiers chosen on the basis of flattery and caprice that any power ever gets exercised at all.  Yes, it's timely, and even though satires of power rarely aren't, this one's even more serendipitous than usual.

If, perhaps, slightly irresponsible; much as Suspiria not long ago, it's another film where part of the animating impulse appears to be to make the point that rule by women is only the same gross story of hierarchy and exploitation with different genitals.  (Like Suspiria, it's also separated out into approximately seven parts, for no really obvious reason.)  Anyway, it's a terribly misanthropic kind of feminism—but I think I like it.  Besides, The Favourite knows what it's doing, and generates enormous fascination in its multifaceted gender disparities, even on a purely visual level, with costuming choices that make the modal image of Sarah's Rachel Weisz a swaggering butch in a riding uniform (who looks hotter in pants than she does in period-appropriate dresses, though all be designed with great care by Sandy Powell), and make Nicholas Hoult's Harley a glamorous ponce who can always be found throwing a hissy-fit under half a pound of foundation and his three-story-high white wig.

The Favourite is funny, in this and many other ways, and has every intention of treating the court of Queen Anne with as much dignity as it thinks it deserves, that is, as a geek show of decadence, from its rotting monarch down to the aristocrats who race geese and lobsters and anything else capable of running, and who have a nasty penchant for playing mind games with loaded weapons.  So, it is funny, but only sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, because usually its gags are more terrifying than anything else.  Now, it can be overrated in this respect, and has been; it's only a little to the left of any given episode of Blackadder, for example.  It's only given breadth by its feature's length and the lack of sitcom structure.  It's only afforded severity by a trio (perhaps even a quartet, if you count Hoult) of immaculately-machined performances that Lanthimos does take seriously, even when he takes nothing in the world they inhabit seriously at all.

It's so much the opposite of The Lobster that it's hard to believe it's the same filmmaker; that film's performances, mannered right into oblivion, are overshadowed by actual emotions here, The Favourite's actors being mannered in far more strategic ways, vigorously pursuing a period piece that's off-kilter but recognizable, and funnier and more pointed for being recognizable, if still wholly disrespectful.  In fact, it's not so much that any of what The Favourite is doing is actually novel, for it absolutely isn't: it plays in very much the same absurdist, disgusted register as almost every story about the emperor sans clothes.  (It would make a wonderful double-feature with The Death of Louis XIV, an even more brutal comedy about the underlying substance of kings and queens.)  But even if what it does isn't new, at least it does it thrillingly and almost flawlessly, cut and often literally sounding like a clockwork counting down to some fatal moment.

So Weisz and Emma Stone duel with equal flintiness—language is as much a weapon in The Favourite as anything, though poison gets best results—and if you wanted to say it was career-best work for either or for both (especially Stone, though Weisz has the cruelest and therefore the best things to say), I don't imagine I could bring much argument to the contrary; yet the center of the film rests with neither of our vicious deuteragonists, but rather the woman they orbit.  This is Anne herself, given shape by Olivia Colman through the kind of performance that is typically called brave, and in this case actually is, a fearless exploration of a geriatric baby (I know Colman is only 44) so shrill and entitled it's almost embarrassing to watch, but which is never quite allowed to collapse into dumb slapstick.  The other irresponsible part of The Favourite is that it gets so close to Anne that you actually do pity her sorry state—she is genuinely ill when we meet her and only gets worse, and that's before you reckon with the psychological damage done by a lifetime of being treated like a brood mare for her dynasty, a responsibility she couldn't even fulfill, though she so earnestly tried.  The film does not mention, but is informed by, the rift between Anne and her sister, Queen Mary, and the way Sarah helped expand then exploit that rift; the film acknowledges, but does not belabor, that the Stuarts did die out with Anne.

There is a shot somewhere in the first half of the film, a cyclopean long-take of a full minute's duration that is nothing but Colman's face, her eyes reflecting the candlelight and following the dance being held in Anne's honor; but Anne is old and consigned to a wheelchair, and what we see in Colman is not just joy but the possibility of joy drain irrevocably out of the woman, and in this instant Anne is everybody who ever lived if only they lived long enough.  It's a long, long, long take.  It's perfect; I only begrudge it because it happens to interrupt what I presume is some wildly anachronistic dancing.  This is the film intoxicated on the joy of its own creation, a wink that it's mostly true, and true in the important things, but doesn't have to always be correct; and I wanted to live in that scene just a few moments longer.  And sometimes, either sadistically or masochistically, I wanted to live in Anne's torment, too, for Colman, despite all her bellowing and carrying on, is the only fully-fledged human to appear in the film; Sarah and Abigail, however well-acted, are mostly symbols of two kinds of politics given life by great actors.  A late-coming scene suggests that perhaps we really were watching a doomed romance all along; but the overwhelming sensation of The Favourite is that it is venomous and thrilling and very, very cold.

It really is hard not to pity Anne, then, but pity is a form of contempt, so perhaps it's appropriate, after all; and we do see the kind of monster she's become.  It is not unnatural that she has, in turn, deformed everything around her.  The Favourite, being a story told through symbol, ends with the victory of style over substance—of illusion over truth, and venality over love—but the final images remind us, horribly, that there never even could have been any victory for Sarah or Abigail themselves.  The only victrix is Anne, and if she was the only person in the film, that even fits.  Dysfunctional and despicable and disgusting as she may be, she was always the only person who mattered anyway.

Score: 9/10

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