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Sunday, 30 December 2018

Movie review: The Favourite, dir Yorgos Lanthimos (2018)

I sat through enough of this film to get an idea of its calibre but a friend contacted me while it was on and I left the cinema before the end. I wasn’t sad to go away from this cliche-ridden, mediocre film, which examines part of the life of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and Lady Sarah Churchill, the duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz).

Drama as well as access to the private lives of these two women is provided by the inclusion of Abigail (Emma Stone), a distant relative of Lady Sarah who arrives at Blenheim Palace asking for work and a place to live. After she arrives at the huge house, Abigail is initially sent to the kitchen to work but one day she is tasked with cleaning the floor and puts her hand in a tub of some sort of astringent chemical that burns it. Then one morning, in pain, Abigail takes a horse from the stables and rides into the forest to look for herbs with which to treat her burns. She also finds something there that she thinks will help the queen, who suffers from sores on her right leg.

Abigail talks her way past a footman and gains access to the queen’s bedroom in Blenheim Palace, where she applies some of her concoction to the infected leg. Lady Sarah interrupts her, sends her away to the kitchen to be whipped, but then finds the remedy has helped allay the queen’s pain. She takes Abigail under her wing and gives her a job as a lady-in-waiting in her household; the job comes with a single bedroom as an added perk.

Anne was only queen for a short time (from 1702 to 1714, first as queen of England, Scotland and Ireland and then of Great Britain and Ireland after Scotland joined England and Wales to form a single political unit) and Lanthimos takes a great deal of pleasure from making fun of the wigs that were popular for men at the time. The makeup is also suitably ridiculous. He uses a distorting lens for some scenes to heighten the viewer’s sense of drama and to render the action grotesque, and cynically lampoons such cultural artefacts of the period as dances.

Dances were places where men and women were able to meet and socialise and were madly popular right through until the Victorian era, when they seem to have fallen out of currency (although country dances continue to be popular in rural Australia today), but for hundreds of years they fulfilled an essential function in society. At dances you could flirt and meet new people and size up prospective partners. Lanthimos merely ridicules the English with his elaborate set pieces. A scene where the duke of Marlborough is engaged in a duck race inside one of the rooms of his palace is designed to serve a similar purpose. I found this sort of tomfoolery tiresome.

I completely fail to understand how a decent romantic drama can be made again and again from novels written by Jane Austen but if you go back 100 years earlier than that you have to make this kind of lame satire that is merely designed to elicit disgust for the ruling classes. I can’t account for the double standards. If this is a realistic “critique” of the manners of the period I am a monkey’s uncle.

The writers did a bad job with the script and the director simply cannot be trusted with anything as complex as characterisation, or even with tone. There is not a single person to like in this film apart from Abigail and this failure renders the drama two-dimensional, like slapstick. It also removes the power of the audience to make decisions for themselves about things that happen in the film and about people who appear in it. A relentless, crushing sense of imminent danger suffocates any possibility for the film to dabble in anything approximating poetry. In a nutshell, this movie is a real stinker and deserves to be ignored.

I also wanted here to say something about the way we popularly imagine history. After watching ‘The Favourite’ I thought how it’s funny that popular culture lags so far behind scholarship despite the way that it's supposed to reflect the aspirations of the broader community. This movie takes some pains to show how hard life was for subalterns in those days, but the characterisation of the serving staff in Marlborough Palace was sketchy at best. The movie contents itself with taking delight in poking fun at the wigs that men used to wear in those days. But the same problem is elsewhere as well. One of the trailers before the movie started was for a new movie about Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth I's arch nemesis.

Once again, a movie about powerful people (specifically, royals) set in the olden days with lots of horses and unwashed noblemen. I'm reminded of Jane Austen's childish spoof of English history, completed when she was a teenager. In it she pokes fun at conventional histories that are about prominent men and women (specifically, royals). In academia, they've come a long with since those days (Austen died in 1817), but it seems that the only place where we celebrate ordinary people is in speculative fiction like the 'Lord of the Rings' series of movies. What are hobbits but ordinary people? There are plenty of movies about superheroes (who are sort of like royals) but not much about the common man and the common woman unless you turn to arthouse movies.

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