I am not in any way uncomfortable with uncomfortable movies. Three of my favorite films of the last few years are “Manchester by the Sea”, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, and “Eighth Grade”, with “Manchester” one of the best movies I have ever seen. But I just viewed another brilliantly executed, and extremely uncomfortable film in “The Favourite”, and I came away with a slightly different feeling.
Set in early 18th century England, the British are at war with France, and Queen Anne is on the throne. The British have the upper hand in the conflict, and “the war is won”, but the hawkish elements of government want to continue on and further damage the French. The more pacifist side wants to end things, more than partially because they find the land taxes used to fund the conflict onerous.
As brilliantly performed (and I mean brilliantly, any award she takes down is deserved), Olivia Coleman’s Queen Anne, is a rather dim, timid, gout-ridden, and easily manipulated monarch. At the outset, the strings are mostly being pulled by Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), as the Queen is alternately distracted or bed ridden. Sarah, like most everyone else in the film, is an opportunist, who constantly attends to Anne’s numerous needs, physically and emotionally, as she virtually takes over the tasks of running the war, and the country.
At the very outset of the story, Sarah’s cousin Abigail (the always top-notch Emma Stone) arrives, covered in mud after a disgusting coach trip, seeking employment. Abigail once had some privilege, before her father lost her in a card game to a German man, and she now tries to move away from the life of squalor she had been leading. She starts as a lowly scullery maid, and for about ten minutes of screen time, we have at least one sympathetic figure.
But Abigail will soon see her own chance for opportunism as she stealthily applies an herb concoction to the Queen’s gout-ravaged legs. She is caught by Sarah in the midst of the application and initially punished, but when the Queen experiences relief, Abigail is elevated to Sarah’s lady-in waiting. Abigail now quickly joins the ranks of the devious, as she aggressively strives to compete for Anne’s affections with Sarah.
While men (including Sarah’s husband, who is leading the campaign) are off fighting and dying in a debatable conflict, life within the walls of the castle (where virtually all of the action takes place), is debauchery at the most hideous level. The men are a gallery of grotesques, all powdered wigs, snuff, rich food and drink, and crude parlor games. Majority Party head Sidney Gadolphin (James Smith), for instance, never lets his prize racing duck out of his sight. Duck racing is EASILY the least offensive pastime, and Gadolphin is a virtual prince compared to most of the others.
Directed by critics darling Yorgos Lanthimos, this production has been in the works for years. Best known for his critically revered, but wildly offbeat “The Lobster”, Lanthimos clearly is a talent, but he could dial down some of his wilder tendencies for my liking. The film looks beautiful, plenty of diffused light and painstaking sets and shots, including a couple of sequences using a fish eye lens to distort the action. He uses effective techniques such as a repetitive, single, scratchy violin note in two different dramatic set pieces, that certainly raise the tension, as you can’t wait for it to stop. I might prefer fingernails on a blackboard.
This is the first feature film that Lanthimos did not also write. The script is by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, and it is, like everything about the film, disturbingly effective. I have heard this comedy-drama described as “hilarious”. It is more wildly clever in starting off with plenty of acerbic and funny ripostes that make it live up to the dual billing, and provide an early balance to all of the dystopian behavior that is rampant.
But the laughs pretty much stop after the first third, and you are left with an absorbing character study that keeps you morbidly fascinated. A saving grace in keeping the tone marginally light as things grow even murkier is the character of the opposition leader Robert Harley. He is played by Nicholas Hoult, who might have stolen the film, if that was possible with all the brilliance around. Harley is just about as Machiavellian as the rest, but his wildly foppish Harley is at least self-aware, and well, fun. That will be the only use of the word “fun” here.
There are many plot twists and behaviors that are best left unstated. For your information, I will note that the film easily lives up to its R rating. Lanthimos could have eased up on the debauchery a couple of notches…the point had been made loudly.
There is not anyone in this film to actually root for. The closest thing to that might be Queen Anne, but she is more pathetic than sympathetic. Relentlessly needy, she also is pretty much responsible for her own health issues with her gluttonous diet dominated by lobster, cake, and sherry. She is homely, and a past littered with tragedy adds to her insecurities, which just creates easier opportunities for her to be taken advantage of. But, her few signs of cleverness come when she uses her frailties to manipulate those around her.
This is all brought together in a tour de force by Coleman. In lesser hands, the character could have descended into parody, but she never lets it come close. It’s pretty damn complicated to play the role of a woman in a powerful position, who is anything but powerful. Someone who at times has the disposition of a medieval tween, but isn’t that simple. A character who desperately wants to be loved, but only can receive it from opportunistic sycophants. Even if the film doesn’t work for you, this performance is memorable.
Except for the noted minor excesses, this is virtually flawless film making. But, it is more a movie to be admired than enjoyed, studied rather than savored. It rated 98 percent from top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, with the audience giving it a mere 59. I only make note because in this case, I completely get that. A person could go into this film thinking “Mary Queen of Scots” or even “Downton Abbey” (a very early trailer showed beforehand) and be taken far aback.
I referenced the other “uncomfortable” recent films at the outset. When I expressed how much I thought of them, the response was usually about the depressing nature of those movies. But in one case, a woman was seeking revenge for an atrocity committed to her daughter, in another a young girl was dealing with the traumatic stresses of moving towards adulthood, and in the third a horrifying mistake understandably haunts a man.
In “The Favourite”, we get a brilliantly depicted portrait of seemingly soulless cretins badly misbehaving with self-gratification and advancement their only apparent motives. I wouldn’t say my skin crawled, but it certainly itched.
I will conclude with this. I don’t think I will watch “The Favourite” again, but I won’t soon forget it. And that’s far from the worse thing you can say for a film.