"The Favourite" - Movie Review
Everybody requires something different from their moviegoing experience. Some of us need explosions and high-speed chases, and an obvious distinction between the bad guys and the good guys. Some of us need quiet moments of clear introspection or subtle drama.
There aren’t explosions in this film- there are deafeningly loud musket shots. There are no high-speed chases- there is plotting, brooding, mind games and manipulation. And finally, there are no good guys in this movie, save for, perhaps, the quietly valiant husband of one of the characters.
“Every man or woman for themselves” is the ethos of the film, The Favourite, starring Emma Stone, Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz. It is about two women, one of stature and rank (Weisz), another of similar upbringing (Stone), who befell the whims of their father and was left with nothing. Both are power-hungry and will go to great lengths to earn or keep their place as the “favourite” of Queen Anne (Colman), depicted as a petulant, emotionally stunted woman riddled with ailments.
Queen Anne ruled England, Scotland and Ireland for just five years, then Great Britain and Ireland for seven more. If you are of a certain mind, this movie will feel to you as if it is a number of years long. I was not one of those people, but I did see the film with one of those people.
It could have been cut by fifteen to thirty minutes and maintained the brisk, sharply funny pace it began with. However, director Yorgos Lanthimos is film-student-as-director, and requires you to feel uncomfortable for as much time as he or you can stand it. Luckily, our one saving grace is that Mr. Lanthimos did not write the screenplay, which was penned by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, an Australian filmmaker.
With his 2015 film, The Lobster, which Lanthimos co-wrote, it was clear that he has a sadistic streak. It landed on some year-end lists of best films, but I’m here to tell you, that movie deserves no accolades, except for “Best Way to Torture Yourself for Two Hours.” I laughed a few times, but by the end, rather than a lobster, I was a frog, left in a pot that began cold and by the end was boiling over. That movie was pure indulgence of dry, cruel humor drenched in nihilism.
This movie continues to tell the story of the darker side of human nature explored in The Lobster, but the humor is more deft here. The pacing is stronger for the most part, and there is more story to tell, the characters more richly inhabited. By the end, you may be rooting for none of the characters, but you will be won over by the performances, especially Emma Stone, who arguably gets the most screen time, and makes great use of it. Olivia Colman is brilliant as the aforementioned Queen Anne, whose emotions shift on a dime- was the character of the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland based on her, or vice-versa? (There is a nod to Lewis Carroll when she quietly sing-speaks “Off with her head, off with her head,” during the first, lighter half of the film.”) Rachel Weisz is also great, and perhaps the only reason she is mentioned last is that she is always great, and so it comes as no surprise. She also has less whimsy to work with.
It could be argued that the weakest performers in the film are the men, but that is not their fault. We don’t get to see too much of them. The one we see the most of, Nicholas Hoult, is the only actor in the film who feels, instead of an adult with autonomy, like a child playing dress-up. He is ill-suited and miscast as another power hungry player, a member of Parliament and advisor to the Queen, dressed in full man-of-the-court regalia, complete with an artificial mop of grey curls (a wig.) It took me out of the film watching him struggle to speak his lines with any naturalism or nuance. He was also equally as bad in Mad Max: Fury Road. Lowering one’s voice an octave and pouting does not a man make.
Men’s power over women, and their sexual ownership of them is not painted with broad strokes. Instead, it is merely understood. A few lines about rape and uncomfortable heterosexual intercourse are played for laughs; why take seriously what is innate and unchangeable?
The Favourite is a queer film. The greatest love story is of course, that of power, but there is, at the very least, gay sex. There is also a queer lens through which we view the quite literally “gay” dress of the women, and especially men, in this period of English history. High heeled shoes, wigs, and blush: a drag queen’s dream.
That lens also pierces through the morbid nature of class, status and wealth and the whims of those who hold it. They race lobsters, rabbits and ducks. They slap each other when they are perturbed. In the opening scene, Queen Anne offers her closest companion, the Duchess of Marlborough, a castle, as a way to “do something nice.”
The most distasteful scene in the movie is one in which a nude, heavyset man is pelted by blood oranges by a group of men, who ditched the grey wigs for ginger ones, all of them laughing, including the target. All of this is rendered in slow-motion, buoyed by the score. It reminded me of a similarly grotesque scene in Tom Ford’s second feature, Nocturnal Animals, which opened on a group of morbidly obese nude women jumping up and down, their tasseled breasts flopping, again in slow motion and set to violin music. While the theme of people and animals (and people-as-animals) as objects and playthings is evident in the film, it felt entirely out of place, and left me feeling like I was watching a film-student who “couldn’t get this scene” out of his head, and instead of filming it and watching it alone for his own pleasure, had to insert it into an otherwise tightly composed film.
This is a period film written for a 2018 audience. It succeeds mostly at blending surrealism and absurdism with realism, and one might believe every word of dialogue, save for a line about a woman’s “vajeejee.” The sociopathic tendencies of the characters echo that of a titular Mr. Ripley, a groundbreaking character in his own right as a gay man conceived of and written in the 1950s. The innate queerness of the characters of The Favourite is debatable, but what is perhaps more important is watching women get to be as absolutely monstrous as men can be. Women may not get to escape the seductress or mistress label in the film, but it does make for interesting conversation and does posit one main theory: Men use their power to get sex, women use sex to get power, but in the end, we are all animals.