Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Favourite

Director Yorgos Lanthimos 

Left to right, Actress Olivia Colman and Emma Stone 

THE FAVOURITE                B                     
Ireland  Great Britain  USA  (119 mi)  2018  d:  Yorgos Lanthimos             Official site 

As it turns out, I am capable of much unpleasantness. 
―Abigail (Emma Stone)

This is what you call a good old-fashioned costume drama, the kind kids love to play when they’re young, able to ham it up in colorfully dressed-up attire, freely exaggerating characters to extremes, as after all, they’re seeking attention in their young underdeveloped lives.  Add mature subject matter to a room full of adults and you’ve got yourself a lavish theatrical spectacle, with sexual intrigue galore and a government that loves to play dress-up with wigs and powdered faces, all pretending to be something they’re not, like being noble, where the game is getting underneath the surface to discover the real lives underneath all the comic buffoonery.  Rivaling the deceptive wit of a Monty Python sketch, written by Deborah Davis with help from Tony McNamara, this deliciously entertaining 18th century historic sex farce reeks of flowery language and sarcastic double entendres usually meant to disarm or humiliate the person spoken to, where language is a means for personal assault, with characters trading surgically precise barbs and insults with great regularity, while the reigning powerbrokers protect their vested interests with aplomb, literally dismissing anyone or anything that disagrees with them.  While Queen Ann (the meekish Olivia Colman) who ruled England from 1702 until 1714 sits on the throne, her physical and mental capacities are diminished by gout (so extreme she had to be carried to her Coronation), burdened with a cane and wheelchair, having lost 17 children in her lifetime (replacing them with pet rabbits in her bedroom chamber), five were stillborn, eight were miscarriages, while the others survived for brief durations, expressing little interest in running a government, viewed as ridiculously frail and not of sound mind, spending nearly all of her time locked away in her room, stuffing herself on cakes and what nots, an infantile caricature of what power represents (remind you of anyone?), with regularly occurring temper tantrums, having more in common with the randomly capricious moods of Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, utterly mad, disagreeable and quarreling all the while, screaming out orders as the mood suits her like “Off with her head!” as all she can really think about is herself.  While it’s a disparagingly weak portrait of a nation in crisis, suffering the delusional rantings of a simpleton on the throne who is in constant need of companionship, all that is righted by the corrective substitute of Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz, supremely dominant with a carefree spirit, exuding utter abandon and joy), the Queen’s advisor on all things from fashion to waging war, who effectively runs the government in abstentia, gallivanting around the court like one of The Three Musketeers, shooting pigeons with rifles, riding horseback through the forests, and manipulating the will of the Queen with utter nonchalance, treating her like a child, scolding and rebuking her at will (as she does the other men on the court), acting as her sole protector, the only person in her trust, as she’s also her secret lover.  While the men amuse themselves with the delusions of power (the film ignores whoever the Queen is consorting with to get pregnant), playing war games with France and arguing over taxes, their role is completely diminished by the effusive power of the women, content instead to serve in a subservient role.   
The film had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, winning the Grand Prize (2nd place) to Cuarón’s ROMA (2018), while Colman came away with the Best Actress award.  Shot on location at the Hatfield House in Hertfordshire and the Knole House in Sevenoaks, Kent (The Many Lives of an English Manor House - Archaeology Magazine), the darkened chambers are massive, with humans dwarfed by the immensity of the empty spaces, illuminated by candlelight, shot in a stretched and warped super wide-angled lens by Robbie Ryan, distorting reality as much as possible, with messengers continually moving in and out of the corridors, like a Shakespeare play.  Using amusing chapter headings that describe a distinct moment in the next sequence, upbeat classical music adds a degree of romp and hilarity to the proceedings, as the mood in the Queen’s chamber is constantly dour, yet the happy strains of Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, or Purcell add a certain luster to the overall mood and charm of life in a castle.  The only film in his repertoire that doesn’t include the suffocatingly restrictive writing style of the director, this has a much more open and freewheeling style, where gossip and back-stabbing are the main activities inside the castle, while an updated dance sequence is stunningly unconventional, featuring flamboyant Madonna-like vogue hand movements and the remarkable dexterity of early break dancing, yet set in such a traditional costume ball setting that is drop dead hilarious.  While it’s clear Lady Sarah wears the pants of this government, toying with men as mere sport, all in good fun, with her acid tongue and acerbic wit having a good time at their expense, running things smoothly without interference, she literally commands men at will (as well as the Queen) to carry out her wishes.  She is, as the title suggests, the court’s favorite, where a running joke will have Lady Sarah unable to attend to the Queen, being told she’s too busy running matters of the state, with the Queen interrupting the messenger, exclaiming “That’s me!  I’m the state.”  While the film has a kind of goofy feel about it, the mood quickly changes with the introduction of a third female character, Abigail (Emma Stone, who relies upon charm and trickery), Lady Sarah’s distant cousin, whose royal lineage took a tumble when her father gambled her away in a card game, fallen out of favor, leaving her impoverished in a life of “whoredom,” doomed to pleasing men she didn’t know, now searching for a way out of this misery, doing menial work as a scullery maid in the palace, she assumes the role of Cinderella, detested by her sadistic rival servants, treated as the lowest of the low, wishing for that magical turn of events at the masked ball.  Hoping to ingratiate herself into the good graces of the Queen, she searches the forest for herbal remedies that might soothe her inflamed legs, violating protocol by applying the remedy herself, without permission, for which she is brutally punished, yet the Queen finds the treatment effective, as it eases her suffering, so Lady Sarah makes Abigail her lady-in-waiting, soon discovering the benefits of such a position, as the men in government wish to pry secrets about Lady Sarah’s various positions on matters of the court, going to great lengths (in other words demeaning humiliation) to get her to comply.  Abigail is surprisingly literate, able to match wits with anyone, and sexually precocious, not to mention ambitious, willing to do anything to get her title and royal standing back.  In other words, she’s a mirror reflection of Lady Sarah, as both have their own designs on favor. 

While secretly burroughing herself into the hidden realms of the palace, Abigail is able to spy on the sexual dalliances of Lady Sarah and the Queen, which is little more than kissing on the lips, with suggestions of so much more, as we learn that the Queen’s appetite knows no bounds.  With this in mind, Abigail starts the sexual machinations, rubbing the Queen’s legs on command, which begins the exploration of more fertile territory, with the camera honed in only on the Queen’s facial expressions, as she obviously agrees with this discretionary exploration of the forbidden fruit.  Once Lady Sarah gets wind of this, her inclination is to have Abigail sent away, punishing her openly defiant transgressions, but the Queen will have none of it, as she likes this latest turn of events, spending her nights sleeping with the young maiden, hoodwinked into believing a selfless Abigail wants nothing from her.  Knowing she’s a liar and a cheat, Lady Sarah is about to mount a frontal attack exposing the young upstart, but Abigail spikes her tea, causing her to pass out while riding a horse through the woods, disappearing for days on end.  In this interim, Abigail not only worms her way into the Queen’s heart, but cleverly manipulates her into granting a wedding with a young nobleman, which reinstates her royal standing.  The honeymoon is a thing of beauty, about as short-lived as a short fuse, all the while mulling over the supposed revenge tactics of the missing Lady Sarah, who ends up in a flophouse, her face mangled and badly bruised, with a wide gash causing permanent scarring on her cheek, slowly recovering until the Queen finally dispatches a search party to find her. When Abigail suggests they are even and can now drop any foul intentions, a quick slap to the face suggests Lady Sarah doesn’t share her views on an existing detente.  Upon her return, however, dressed all in black with a veil over the right side of her face (“If I were a man, I’d be quite dashing with a scar like this”), she resembles the look of a pirate, but not only that, Lady Sarah has lost her leverage with the Queen.  Taunting Sarah with her newly reinstated royal status, Abigail leads a charmed life, as her fairy tale dreams apparently did come true.  Unable to convince the Queen of Abigail’s foul motives, Lady Sarah threatens to expose the Queen with the utter embarrassment of her prurient love letters sent to Lady Sarah, which would raise a royal scandal and threaten her rule, but this only leaves a bad taste with the Queen, not only refusing to send Abigail away, but banishes Lady Sarah instead, whose utter fall from grace (by nefarious means) is a knockout blow.  What truly elevates this film is the relation it bears to Kubrick’s masterwork BARRY LYNDON (1975), but from a female perspective, where there is no infamous duel scene, but if you stay over the end credits you can hear the fluttering of the doves.  Kubrick’s film astounds with an infamous Schubert Piano Trio, Schubert / Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat major, D. 929: 2nd mvt - YouTube (3:07) playing a major musical theme, while this film utilizes another sublimely elegant work by Schubert, his Piano Sonata #21, D. 960, played by Artur Schnabel, Artur Schnabel plays Schubert Sonata in B flat Major D 960 (2/3) YouTube (11:22), which plays over Lady Sarah’s masterfully conniving fall from favor.  While all three women are adorable and irresistible, the film is comically subversive, way over the top, with plenty of glitz and glamor, yet it doesn’t hold a candle to the epic tragedy that befell Barry Lyndon in Kubrick’s film.  

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