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Oscar Quest 2019: “The Favourite”

The Favourite!

The producers guarantee no one in the audience shall be snoring during the final minutes of this motion picture.

It’s that time again! Longtime MCC readers know this time of year is my annual Oscar Quest, during which I venture out to see all Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, regardless of whether I think I’ll like them or not, whether their politics and beliefs agree with mine or not, whether they’re good or bad for me, and whether or not my friends and family have ever heard of them. I’ve seen every Best Picture nominee from 1997 to the present, and look forward to pushing that statistic even farther back into cinematic history if only some kindly studio or lawyers would rescue Mike Leigh’s 1996 improv drama Secrets & Lies from its peculiar, long-standing Region 1 banishment. To this day it’s not available on a single streaming service, not even Amazon Prime. Seriously, I have been aggravated about this for nearly twenty years. CRITERION, I AM BEGGING YOU, PLEASE HELP IT AND ME IN THAT ORDER. Netflix? Kanopy? TCM? Anyone?

Ahem. Sigh. Anyway.

First in line is Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, a film that checks off two squares on the 21st-century Best Picture Nominee bingo card: “British history” and “sexy-time nudity”, though not as much of the latter as I’d expected and yet more than I ask for in any given film, which is none.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Once upon a time in the early 1700s, England was ruled by the faltering Queen Anne (the always fantastic Olivia Colman), who was in no shape to give orders but not allowed simply to resign, retire, or beseech her subjects to vote a new queen into office. Day-to-day ruling was therefore delegated to her chief sidekick Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz from The Mummy), who issued orders and pushed around politicians as she saw fit. Sarah’s opinions in some conflicts didn’t always match the Queen’s — particularly on the issue of funding their ongoing war with France — but Sarah’s lock on the position kept her safe from any possibility of being overruled, impeached, arrested, or executed. It helped that, as the film and some historians tell it, she and the Queen shared certain tastes and proclivities in their after-hours activities, he typed with a goofy expression that silently implied “if you know what I mean.”

One day an intruder disrupts their routine: Sarah’s distant cousin Abigail (Emma Stone, back from La La Land) shows up at the palace, covered in rags and mud, hoping to finagle herself a lowly servant’s position that couldn’t possibly be worse than the tawdry peasant’s life that her failure of a father let befall her. Abigail passes the nominal job interview and is assigned duties down in the kitchen, which closely resembles the kitchen from Downton Abbey but centuries before the invention of cleaning fluids. She makes new enemies and manages to survive (barely), but gradually finds ways to do favors for those around her, including a particularly presumptuous act of kindness for the Queen. One good turn begets another, and soon Abigail is rising through the ranks and given an actual bed and permission for occasional solitary bathing. Moving on up to the big time, and all that.

Before long Abigail begins setting her sights on Sarah’s job, and the competition for Queen Anne’s good graces becomes all-out women’s war. Who’ll go farthest to win?

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Nicholas Hoult (young Beast from the X-Men) has a grand old time as the catty Robert Harley, a high-ranking Tory in the Queen’s court insistent that the war on France not be funded by raising taxes on rich landowners. Joe Alwyn, previously seen as Nazi progeny Klaus Eichmann in Operation Finale, is the Baron Masham, another hoity-toity court loiterer who would later become Abigail’s husband, once she was promoted sufficiently above gutter-level. Mark Gatiss from TV’s Sherlock is Sarah’s husband Lord Marlborough, a bit occupied with leading the charge on France and mostly standing by offscreen, waiting on that war funding.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:

  • Sometimes women will fight for power just as hard and as dirtily as any male in the room, even if it means throwing each other under the bus. The sentiment of “we women have to stick together!” could be a luxury and a hindrance.
  • Insisting on governing while gravely ill is irresponsible and bound to lead to disaster.
  • Whenever a high-ranking authority delegates too much power to a subordinate, abusive overstepping of boundaries and direct contradiction of the actual bigwig’s own positions are entirely possible, hard to prevent, and next to impossible to punish. (See also: Vice.)
  • Back in the days of merry olde England, wealthy men still supported war but didn’t want to pay for any of it with their own cash, pretty much like today.
  • Merry olde England was also a thoroughly nasty place, which they failed to teach us in school or in vintage heroic WWII films.
The Favourite!

Lady Gwen Stacy: threat or menace?

Nitpicking? This is my first exposure to the work of Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster is buried in my Netflix queue), who if nothing else refuses to settle for the sort of staid, passive camera work that typifies British costume dramas. I should be happy to see a break from tradition, but I found myself too frequently distracted — I counted at least ten jarring 180-degree whip-pans, at least two non-comedic shots through fisheye lenses, and plenty of off-kilter angles that seem…somehow like a wrong way to view 400-year-old figures and scenery. It’s not quite Batman ’66, but when I’m noting camera work instead of feeling the dueling emotions in a given scene, my attention’s been misdirected where I don’t want it to be.

I do appreciate that no one sounds as though they’re reading from the King James Bible, but too-modern phrasing kicks me right out as well. Note to writers younger than myself: any and every ending of a sentence with “…so there’s that” immediately tells me you’re younger than me and you’re letting your characters talk like you instead of like themselves. On the other hand, I’m not quite versed enough to know if C-words outnumbered F-bombs in usage in the era as they nearly do here.

Prudes like me might be surprised to learn this isn’t quite the nonstop erotic drama I’d expected. The sex scenes are at a bare minimum (no pun intended), though to secure the edgy R rating (as if the language hadn’t already) there’s one quick jaunt through a festering brothel that reminded me in a bizarre way of the asylum backdrop from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

So what’s to like? In addition to their innate talents brought to the fore, Stone and Weisz have each been gifted with cutting dialogue and vicious attitudes, all the better to shred each other as the royal battleground keeps shifting back and forth in their wild game of one-upwomanship. Weisz’ stern authority figure is no mere power-hungry dominatrix, but someone who’s had to grow into an extremely tough job because someone had to do it. When she realizes the usurper Abigail is daring to interfere with her gig, dialing down her arrogance is not an option and could potentially doom the empire itself. As an opponent who seeks what’s best for herself and not necessarily what’s best for her country, Stone holds us at bay for as long as possible, keeping us guessing whether she’s merely the goodly damsel earning what she deserves or a conniving gold-digger playing the long con.

Trapped in the middle is Olivia Colman, undisputed champion from such previous works as Broadchurch and The Night Manager. Her take on Queen Anne is at once powerless and in charge — often flailing and wailing in an agony unbecoming to the throne, but ultimately trying to get back to the old status quo that once demanded all must bow before her. At first she’s like a wounded child relying on a little help from her friends — perhaps too much — but in her pathetic state she grows to hate watching helplessly as her two favorite women tussling like two kids sparring over a carnival prize. While the film doesn’t exactly end with the Queen reclaiming the throne and ordering some choice beheading, she nonetheless crawls with pride toward a modicum of…well, of superiority, if not necessarily dignity. As always Colman becomes the compelling all-star.

Though historians quibble over the exact nature of Queen Anne’s relations with Sarah and Abigail, screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara employ far fewer historical distortions than I’d expected (compared to, say, the revisionist hero’s journey of Bohemian Rhapsody). Anyone who’s a history buff but not necessarily interested in enduring the edgy or tawdry bits might do well to wait for the eventual edited-for-TV version and see if they’re as fascinated as I was by an unglossed, acerbic portrayal of warts-and-all compromised monarchy.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after The Favourite end credits, which for some reason are formatted into rigorously spaced, unreadable boxes, as if Lanthimos decided the audience might delight in watching some word search puzzles before they go. Meanwhile in the background plays a 1969 Elton John track called “Skyline Pigeon”, which made a fitting bookend with the trailer for Rocketman that preceded our showing.

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