“THE FAVOURITE” (2018) Review

 

“THE FAVOURITE” (2018) Review

From the moment I first saw the trailer for Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2018 Oscar nominated comedy-drama, “THE FAVOURITE”, I wanted to see it. Badly. Being something of a penny pincher, I had figured I would not get a chance to see the film until its release on DVD, cable television or streaming television. But my sister, who also wanted to see the film, finally convinced me to spend a few extra dollars to see the film while it was still in limited release. 

What was the reason behind my fervent desire to see “THE FAVOURITE”? One, it was a period film . . . and I am a sucker for the genre. Two, the movie was set during the reign of Queen Anne of Great Britain, a period I have not personally seen on screen since my viewing of the 1969 miniseries, “THE FIRST CHURCHILLS”. And three, judging from the trailer, the movie struck me as funny, witty and very original. I love originality.

“THE FAVOURITE” is basically Lanthimos’ take on the political rivalry between two of Queen Anne’s courtiers and cousins – Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and Abigail Masham, Baroness Masham – for her favor. The movie begins with then Abigail Hill’s arrival at Kensington Palace to serve as a scullery maid (?). Abigail, whose father had lost his fortune during a game of whist, owes her job to her cousin, Sarah Churchill. The latter is the Queen’s premiere courtier and has an emotional hold over the monarch, due to their sexual affair. However, Sarah’s powerful standing in Court begins to decline when Abigail manages to win the Queen’s favor after using her to help relieve the latter’s pain from the gout. Abigail and the Queen eventually begins an affair and former’s standing in Court not only increases, but also threatens Sarah’s.

Lanthimos’ movie had a lot going for it. Thanks to his screenplay, “THE FAVOURITE” featured political intrigue . . . well, somewhat; and three lead characters and a supporting character that proved to be fascinating. Queen Anne’s twelve-year reign proved to be volatile than I had ever surmised. To be honest, I have not given a thought about Anne’s reign since watching “THE FIRST CHURCHILLS” a long time ago. The movie did occasionally focused on the conflicts between the Tory and Whig parties. Abigail Masham, like Queen Anne and Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford, favored the Tory party and Sarah Churchill favored the Whigs. The latter party supported Britain’s participation in the War of the Spanish Succession aka Queen Anne’s War, and the Churchills had benefited from John Churchill’s command of British troops during it. Due to Sarah’s emotional control over the Queen, the Whigs under Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphin maintained control over Parliament. However, that changed after Abigail’s arrival at Kensington Palace due to Lord Oxford’s insistence that she spy on the Queen’s relationship with Sarah and later, her growing favor with the monarch.

The movie touched upon all . . . or, most of the political aspects surrounding Queen Anne’s Court. However Yorgos Lanthimos, along with screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, had decided to focus upon the emotional and sexual triangle that had formed between Anne, Sarah and Abigail. Watching this triangle unfurl was like being sucked into some emotional vortex – fascinating and at the same time, dangerous and volatile. Davis, McNamara and especially Lanthimos provided moviegoers with a period biopic that certainly skewered from the usual output from both the Hollywood industry and the film industry overseas. Both the best and the worst aspects of all three women and some of the supporting characters seemed to be on display. Some critics have claimed that “THE FAVOURITE” is basically a satire on period dramas. I agree, but it also struck me as a cautionary tale about the acquirement, use and abuse of power. This cautionary tale especially seemed to encompass the Abigail Masham and Lord Oxford characters, as they use Queen Anne to overcome Sarah Churchill’s control of the Court and the Whigs in Parliament. But this theme of abuse of power also touched upon Sarah Churchill and her attempts to maintain her control and the Queen herself, who becomes increasingly determined that she would be the one in control and no one else.

The production’s visuals and designs proved to be first-rate. Robbie Ryan had received both an Academy Award nomination and a BAFTA nomination for the film’s excellent photography. I thought his photography captured the beauty and color of the movie’s English locations. Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton won a well-deserved BAFTA award and earned an Oscar nomination for the movie’s production designs. Both Crombie Felton did a superb job in re-creating the look of Queen Anne’s Court of the early 18th century. And what can I say about Sandy Powell’s costume designs, which earned an Academy Award nomination and won a BAFTA? I thought she did an excellent job in re-creating . . . well, almost re-creating the fashions of early 18th century England as shown below:

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Powell’s designs are not completely historically accurate. Although she accurately shaped the costumes, Powell made them from Nigerian fabrics found in London. And the costumes’ color schemes seemed to feature white, blue, gray and black. Very original, very beautiful, but not particularly accurate.

I certainly had no complaints about the cast. Most of the supporting cast for “THE FAVOURITE” – Joe Alwyn, James Smith, Edward Aczel, and Mark Gatiss – all gave solid performances. However, I must admit that there were times when Gatiss, who portrayed the Duke of Marlborough, barely seemed visible and obviously wasted in this film. However, there was one supporting performance that really impressed and entertained me. It came from Nicolas Hoult, who portrayed English statesman and occasional sadist, Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford. Was the real Lord Oxford a sadist? I have no idea. But he did try to gain Abigail’s assistance to gain favor with Queen Anne with no scruples. Hoult managed to capture his character’s slightly sadistic, yet ambitious nature with such subtlety and skill that I found myself enjoying his performance more than any other in the film.

If I must be frank, the true backbone or backbones of “THE FAVOURITE” proved to be the three leading ladies – Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. As much as I enjoyed Hoult’s performance, I realize that this movie would have been nothing without them. Many may wax lyrical over Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s Oscar nominated screenplay, Sandy Powell’s costumes or Yorgos Lanthimos’ direction. But the performances of the three actresses made this movie and all three gave superb performances. Olivia Colman won just about every (or nearly every) acting award under the sun for her portrayal of Queen Anne of Great Britain. What I admire about her performance is that she gave emotional depth to a character that was in danger by the screenplay into devolving into a caricature of an idiot savant. I could probably say the same about Rachel Weisz’s portrayal of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. There were times when the Sarah Churchill character seemed in danger of drifting into some stereotype of the “butch” lesbian trope. If it were not for Weisz’s excellent acting, for which she received an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actress, I would have lost all interest in the character. Emma Stone was lucky that her character Sarah Hill Masham, Baroness Masham never drifted toward the edge of caricature. In a way, she had it easier than Colman and Weisz. But I admire her performance for two reasons. One, she had to master some kind of upper-class English accent without overdoing it. And two, the actress did an excellent job of revealing Abigail’s cold ambitions behind the warm and feminine facade, layer by layer.

And yet . . . despite my admiration for the cast’s performances, the film’s visual style and certain aspect of its narrative; I did not like “THE FAVOURITE”. I did not hate it like some who did. But I did not like it. The movie seemed like a cinematic version of a drama queen. The cinematic epitome of pure titillation. When it comes to historical accuracy in films and television, I seemed to have mixed views. I can tolerate it, if it works for me. I tolerated Sandy Powell’s historically incorrect costumes. I tolerated the fact that the Earl of Oxford character, as portrayed by Nicholas Hoult, was a good 15 years younger than the real Lord Oxford during the film’s setting. And I tolerated the historically inaccurate characterizations of the film’s three leading characters . . . only to a point in which I admired their performances. But the movie had crossed too many lines for my tastes.

Queen Anne kept rabbits as pets to symbolize the 17 children she had lost? Rabbits as pets? During the early 18th century? They were either regarded as food or pests over three centuries ago. What was the point of those rabbits in the first place? What did her lost children have to do with the movie’s narrative, other than reveal Abigail as some uncaring monster? Was that it? What happened to Anne’s consort, Prince George of Denmark? Her husband who was still alive when Abigail Masham née Hill first joined the Queen’s Court? Why was he kept out of the movie, but not Sarah or Abigail’s husbands? His death had proven to be one of the main reasons why the Queen and Sarah first became estranged in the first place. Anne had loved him very much and Sarah’s dismissive attitude toward Prince George’s death sparked the beginning of the two women’s estrangement. Why did the film failed to mention that Abigail was also related to Lord Oxford, as well as Sarah Churchill? And why on earth was her first position at the Queen’s Court as a scullery maid? A scullery maid? Seriously? Someone with her blood connections? Both Sarah and Lord Oxford would have found it socially embarrassing to have a cousin working as a scullery maid within the Queen’s household.

And of course, there were scenarios and scenes that left me scratching my head. One of the scenes I refer to is that ridiculous scenario in which Abigail had poisoned Sarah and had the latter dumped at some whorehouse outside of London. One, it was stupid plan that could have easily backfired. And two, what was the movie trying to say? That Abigail was familiar with places before her arrival at Court? And could someone please explain the reasoning behind the scene that featured a nude, giggling fat man being pelted by blood oranges by Lord Oxford and his cronies. What was the point of that scene? What exactly was Yorgos Lanthimos trying to say? Also, what was the point behind Samuel Masham’s line dance performance (courtesy of actor Joe Alwyn) in the film? What was that about? Or was it another scene for shock value? Honestly, scenes like Sarah in a whorehouse, the pelted naked man and Masham’s dance routine are just examples of the absolute, over-the-top nonsense that I had found in this film.

But what really pissed me off about “THE FAVOURITE” were the changes that Lanthimos, Davis and McNamara made in regard to the history between Queen Anne, the Duchess of Marlborough and the Baroness Masham. What was the point in these changes? It seemed as if the director and the screenwriters had striped away a great deal of the historical conflict between the three women in order to convey a tale of a sexual triangle filled with ambition and passion. And nothing else. This struck me as unnecessary and frankly, a little insulting as a woman. It almost seemed as if the movie found it difficult to take the political beliefs and/or abilities of three women seriously, especially Queen Anne. The estrangement between the Queen and Sarah, along with Abigail’s ascendancy was pretty interesting in real life. Aside from showing Sarah’s political influence within the Court, the movie never really explored the political differences between the Queen and Sarah . . . or the fact that Abigail genuinely shared the former’s Tory politics. Or that Queen Anne had not only grown weary of Sarah’s bullying nature, but also resentful of the latter’s Whig politics. Instead, moviegoers were presented with a tale mainly about sexual power, with very little politics involved.

In fact, there is no real proof that Queen Anne was ever in any sexual relationship with either Sarah or Anne. I dislike the fact that Davis and McNamara’s screenplay solely blamed Abigail for the Queen and Sarah’s estrangement. In reality, Sarah was the main instigator of her own political downfall. In fact, she was also the main reason behind her own downfall within King George II’s Court, some twenty years later. I realize that Davis, McNamara and Lanthimos wanted a “Eve Harrington” figure and they saw Abigail Masham as the perfect figure for this. But if they had wanted a LGTBQ remake of “ALL ABOUT EVE” that badly, why not create original characters for this movie? Why use historical figures who were never proven to be gay in the first place? One more thing, it took me a while, but I finally realized that “THE FAVOURITE” reminded me of another movie. I am speaking of the 1989 comedy about a divorce called “THE WAR OF ROSES”. Like “THE FAVOURITE”, the 1989 movie started out as a movie filled with sharp humor and devolved into something ugly and lurid. And in the case of “THE FAVOURITE” . . . laced with exploitation.

I hate to say this, but “THE FAVOURITE” proved to be a major disappointment for me. Perhaps this would teach me not to judge a film, based upon a trailer. When I first saw it, I had assumed that the film would be a satirical comedy with strong political overtones. Instead, I found myself watching a film in which the comedy became repetitive and not as funny as I had originally assumed . . . and a movie with the historical background changed drastically for the sake of shock value and sheer exploitation. Director Yorgos Lanthimos, along with screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, pretty much ruined this film for me. And not even the excellent performances of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz or Emma Stone could save it, as far as I am concerned.