Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Favourite: Three’s a Royal Crowd

Today, because we’re living in the #MeToo era, we’re well accustomed to seeing powerful men indulge themselves by making the women around them bend to their will. In The Favourite, by Yorgos Lanthimos, who had previously amused and puzzled filmgoers with The Lobster, #MeToo is stood on its head. The film’s chief female characters are anything but helpless victims. Instead, the eighteenth-century women played by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are rude, crude, and very much on the make. No shrinking violets, they gravitate toward power, and know how to use sexuality (as well as belligerence and guile) in order to get it. Unfortunately for them, each is determined to replace the other, in a struggle that becomes increasingly grizzly as the film wears on.

How curious that their target is not only another woman but one of royal birth. The historical record tells us that  Queen Anne of Great Britain, the last monarch of the Stuart line, was fated by circumstance to not have an easy time on the throne. By 1702, when her twelve-year reign began, she had lost a beloved husband to smallpox and buried seventeen young children, many of whom were stillborn. Badly afflicted with gout, Anne suffered great pain. As portrayed in the movie by the impressive Olivia Colman, she was a vain and indecisive woman, easy prey for the domineering Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), who advanced her husband’s military career and her own social standing by effectively making policy on Anne’s behalf.

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, is a genuine historic figure, an ancestor of both Winston Churchill and Princess Diana. I suspect that Abigail, the character played by Emma Stone, has no such historical roots. Still, she fits nicely into Lanthimos’s portrayal of the British royal court. The daughter of a down-on-his-luck aristocrat, she has the smarts and the breeding to succeed at court, even though she starts as a lowly scullery maid. A tart tongue and a shrewd grasp of the court’s power dynamics gets her into the presence of Queen Anne; flattery and sexual wiles keep her there. But like Sarah, she is not destined to achieve contentment. That’s part of the price you pay when sucking up to royalty: you can easily be replaced when the monarch moves on to something (or someone) else.

Colman’s portrait of Queen Anne is a deeply memorable one, though it’s doubtless not the final word on Anne’s achievements. There’s evidence she took serious interest in affairs of state, and did at least some good while on the throne, serving as a patroness of theatre, poetry, and music. She subsidized the career of one of England’s greatest composers, George Frederick Handel, and knighted Isaac Newton in 1705. But basically The Favourite left me relieved that my own nation is not subject to the whims of an hereditary ruler, nor to those of the courtiers who (at least temporarily) find favor in royal eyes. Still, Americans have come to know what it’s like to be under the leadership of someone who is mercurial, impetuous, and susceptible to flattery. Which is one more way that The Favourite, a tale of eighteenth-century England, seems all too appropriate for the United States of America in 2019.

 As always in British films of this ilk, production values are dazzling, though the movie is also marked by Lanthimos’s occasional oddball aesthetic choices. Period costumes and music vie for our attention with graphic nudity and strange, grotesque moments (like some choreography with moves that look suspiciously like break-dancing) that remind us we’re in the 21st century after all.

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