As long as I can remember I’ve been a theatre-type much more than a movie-type, so we don’t go to the films as often as most people. Surprise, surprise, we went twice last week! On Wednesday we saw the charming and enjoyable Stan & Ollie, and on Saturday night it was the turn of The Favourite.
I didn’t have much in the way of expectations, other than believing it to be a madcap and rather black comedy featuring Queen Anne. And of course, Olivia Colman, as the Royal Personage Herself, who was the prime reason we chose to see it. She can do no wrong in my book. And, to an extent, she continues to do no wrong as she is by far the best thing about this film; the other two good things being her co-stars, Rachel Weisz as the sinister and cruel Duchess of Marlborough and Emma Stone as the irrepressibly optimistic and ruthlessly manipulative Abigail Masham.
The plot can be summarised thus: two women vie for the attention of Queen Anne in order to gain power and status for themselves, and are not above indulging in a little sexual shenanigans to get it. Err… that’s it.
Many people I like, indeed love, and whose opinions I respect and admire, have told me what a jolly good film this is. Black comedy, rule breaking, innovative, savage, hilarious; toying with historical fact and historical fiction to create its own dystopian society. And, to be fair, it does achieve this very well. The one aspect of the film that amused me more than anything was how the queen made life or death decisions on the tactics of war with France at a complete whim and clearly without the first clue as to the logic of the battlefield. Because of the regal regime of terror and violence, and unctuous supplication to the crown, the politicians and the military can merely bow down, do her bidding and accept her stupidity. The queen only cares about herself, and her self-indulgences: eating and drinking too much, playing with her pet rabbits, and occasional cunnilingus provided by Abigail. The queen is a truly grotesque characterisation and Ms Colman carries it off with her usual aplomb.
I also know some people – not so many, but still significant – who didn’t rate the film at all. And I have heard of people walking out, which, as I was watching it, didn’t particularly surprise me. If you don’t “get” this film, it’s going to do nothing for you. Sadly, I am among that number. I didn’t get this film at all.
In fact, I got the sense all the way through that this was a film trying to shock for shock’s sake, rather than honestly and organically unfolding its story and characters. I felt like we’d gone back fifty years, and this was some creation of a wild child Ken Russell-type, perhaps with a spot of Andy Warhol or Derek Jarman thrown in. It came across as trying to push the boundaries of what would be allowed by a censor, even though those boundaries have long been established. There’s a brothel scene, so let’s have a bunch of female extras queueing up with their breasts out. There’s a shower scene (why?) so let’s have some more naked female extras having freezing buckets of water chucked over them so we can watch them suffer. Let’s see how many times we can get away with the main characters vomiting, and try to make it humorous by having flunkeys capture the puke in a silver ewer. Let’s see how uncomfortable we can make an audience by having someone tread heavily on a rabbit, for no reason other than because they can, so it cries out in pain. It strikes me that this is a director struggling with late-onset puberty.
Everything is done to excess in this film. Now, it may well be that it was an era of excess, so that it’s arguably a reasonable tactic to employ. But there are limits; even “doing it to excess” is done to excess. When Abigail gets off the coach at the beginning of the film, she can’t just get out of it, she has to be pushed out so that she falls face first in the midden. When she’s in conversation with the MP who wants her to spy on the queen, it can’t just end there, she has to be pushed head first so that she falls flat down a hill (same joke twice, well done.) When she has offended protocol by attending to the queen’s inflamed legs without permission, she isn’t simply dismissed, she’s punished with three savage strokes (was going to be six but it was curtailed) of the birch performed in full view for general entertainment. When anyone disapproves of something, they shout. Especially the queen. She shouts loudly, gracelessly, savagely, ear-piercingly; no filter, as the Insta crowd say. This may be all very clever but, boy, does it get on your nerves.
Even the cinematography has the feel of someone who’s been let off the leash for the first time, playing with effects to see if they work. What does this button do? Oooh it’s fish-eye! Let’s start lots of the scenes fish-eye style for no apparent reason whatsoever apart from seeing what it looks like. And what’s this button? Wow, it’s widescreen! Let’s use this as another tool for disorienting the audience, yay! Have you heard about this thing where you can layer one image on top of another so that it looks really groovy? Let’s include that for no reason whatever! Oh, and have you finished doing the titles yet? Oh great, you’ve used an ornate font and centre-justified them so that they look like a block of words that’s impossible to read! A perfect symptom of a product that’s all show and no substance!
No, I’m not buying this. 120 minutes including the occasional chuckle but many more wtf moments. Mrs Chrisparkle managed to stay awake but was severely bored. I wasn’t bored, I was just stunned by its assumption that we’d fall for old-fashioned shock tactics straight out of the late 60s. There’s probably a very good film hidden in there somewhere. Go away and do it again.