' ' Cinema Romantico: The Favourite

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Favourite

The immortal Rick Blaine once observed: “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” “The Favourite”, set in the early 18th century against the backdrop of the War of Spanish Succession, refutes this sentiment. In the heightened style of director Yorgos Lanthimos, the foreign policy of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), lonely and stricken by gout, pertains strictly to her whims. These whims are guided and exploited by Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), Duchess of Marlborough, who has installed herself as the Queen’s closest confidant, until her destitute cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), shows up at the Palace and quickly insinuates herself into the mix, gradually gaining the Queen’s ear, though less from concerns of national interest than her own selfish pleasure and eventual distaste for Lady Sarah. The hunger for status and power suggests “All About Eve”, but there are also prominent notes of “Phantom Thread” given not just the motif of vomit but in the erotic power plays and how easily these women bend the men to their will. Spanish inheritance and European expansion might be at stake, but that doesn’t mean a hill of beans compared to the problems of three little people.

The period specificity is aesthetically on point, particularly Sandy Powell’s typically splendid costume design, not only charting Stone’s rise from servant to noblewoman through clothes but putting Weisz in a black and white jacket for pigeon shooting that would, even now, so many centuries later, if the world had wit, instantly become the New Blaze Orange. Despite these details, however, Lanthimos picks and chooses his history and then dementedly choreographs it, emblemized in a dance sequence between Lady Sarah and Baron Malsham (Joe Alwyn), Abigail’s eventual husband, that does not meld past and present so much as jettison past entirely; it’s like re-imagining Marty McFly at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance as Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball at Windsor Castle.

It’s a revisionist costume epic, in other words, and one placing women front and center. True, the movie essentially conforms to the old angry white man belief that women in positions of power will be subject to their, shall we say, feminine urges, yet Lanthimos paints his males with that same brush. Indeed, Abigail’s wedding night rendezvous with Baron Masham where she, ah, pleasures her new husband becomes a riotously ribald encapsulation of the old Jerry Seinfeld observation of how women are working on a whole other level; she literally holds this dithering idiot in the palm of her hand. “The Favourite” might believe, as “Dr. Strangelove” did, war is an extension of sexual desire and frustration by other means, but he also connects that idea to society itself. When Lady Sarah suffers a riding accident after being poisoned by Abigail, she briefly winds up in a brothel, and though she quickly escapes with Royal help, her departing macabre crack about gainful employment to fall back on acknowledges the slippery slope for women of the era and puts everyone’s role into perspective.

It also epitomizes how delicately “The Favourite” straddles the line between brutish drawing room farce and just brutish, underlined in a musical score toggling between baroque strings as laugh track and a single tense piano note, and with which Weisz beautifully harmonizes by playing both hysterically icy and plain icy. In one of the year’s best scenes, Weisz’s character has it out with Tory Opposition Leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) who can’t deal with the war’s extravagant cost. Lanthimos shoots this scene looking up at Lady Sarah, where Weisz’s rock-solid posture suggests an immovable object, and, fed up, Harley kicks a table, leading Lady Sarah to observe that a war is on and every penny counts, a deft line reading where Weisz’s inflection communicates that the Duchess knows she is landing a comic haymaker. Then the moment flips, briefly, as Harley rushes at her, staring her down, evoking and slyly inverting the familiar sexually tense old school movie shot where the leading man stares down at the leading lady before planting one on her lips. In this moment, Weisz is astonishing; she doesn’t buckle, but she also looks like she’s about to burst out laughing at this blockhead.

Weisz’s wicked restraint is countered by Stone’s more broadly comic performance, complete with reaction shots made for belly laughs. But if her performance is bigger, it is also true to the character of Abigail, introduced covered in mud, suggesting what she is willing to roll around in to get what she wants, flipping between virtuous and vile to do so. The character might have a tragic past suggesting a glint of humanity, but Stone chooses to play the part not as if that humanity has been repressed but eliminated, treating her relationship with the Queen as a cruel joke.

That cruel joke connects to the film’s ultimate tragedy, which is The Queen herself, a character who is easy to laugh at yet also to empathize with, even, in a way, when she is screaming at subordinates for the sin of simply looking at her. The character is at once emotionally isolated and physically surrounded, always in the glare (hence, the recurring fish eye lens), a dichotomy that Colman improbably embodies, teetering on the edge in every frame, trying to keep it together even as she seems mentally checked out. She is not really Royalty, not in the heightened way we think of it, but nor is she like you and me; she’s just wrecked. When she stuffs cake and her mouth only to immediately throw it back up, she might as well be throwing up all over the monarchy.

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