Review: 'The Favourite'

A negger, a schemer and a crowned simpleton match wits
Abigail (Emma Stone) uses her feminine wiles to curry the Queen's favor in 'The Favourite.'In ''

Caked with mud, Emma Stone's Abigail arrives at Queen Anne's palace. Abigail notices that she's not just filthy, but she smells. A servant says, "They shit in the streets around here. Political commentary, they call it." For similar reasons, what Yorgos Lanthimos does in The Favourite could be called historical fictionalizing.

One understands the desire of Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster) to toss some mud at a wide-eyed cinema sweetheart like Emma Stone; it's like Bunuel slapping mire on Deneuve in Belle du Jour. And the era invites mockery; the first decade of the 1700s were something like peak foppery, with mile-high wigs and white makeup to conceal syphilis sores.

It's a sour comedy of the rivalries between Queen Anne of England (Olivia Colman) and her bed-chamber companions, the Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), and the newly arrived Abigail (Stone), Sarah's poor relation. The unfortunate Queen suffered smallpox, a watery eye, severe gout, perhaps lupus, and 17 pregnancies that never produced a child who lasted until puberty. She was a martyr to the office of royal broodsow. No master of statecraft, she's ordered around snappishly by the power behind the throne, Sarah.

Abigail is cast into the kitchen to be a scrubber, but she's too wiley to be kept there long. What commences is a contest between Sarah, looking as dangerous as a highwayman in the renowned costumer Sandy Powell's black riding and hunting outfits. Abigail has a poisoner's guile (she knows herbs) and throws herself at the queen in unsubtle ways, such as by stripping and hiding in the royal bed. The Queen gets strength from having her new lover, and doesn't have to put up with Sarah's negging. Sarah is one of those suitors who justifies her insulting tongue on the grounds that she is a truth teller.

It's a great idea for a film, but as realized here it's a misanthrope's tale in which every new bit of empowerment just makes a person worse. One interesting part of Anne's short reign is the rise of the rivaling two-party system that still chains Washington, D.C. today. But the game here is a contest between old Tory fools distracted by duck racing and young Whig fools who like to play naked orange-tossing games. While there's talk of the London mob and the European wars, they're both off-screen.

Anne's lesbianism was rumored by the merciless pamphleteers of the day (even Jonathan Swift engaged in the contemporary mud-slinging). Given what a devout woman Anne was, perhaps not. The quarrels between the three women were actually religious, over different brands of Protestantism.

The contemporary prose, one of the peaks of English literature, was sometimes served up with nightsoil, but still the bluntness in Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara's screenplay isn't wit. The script defeats the actors. This was an age of insinuation. So there's just aimless coarseness to threats like "Do you want to get punched?" or "I have a certain desire to see your nose broken," or even Sarah claiming that Harley (Nicholas Hoult), the perfumed leader of the Whigs, smells like "a 96-year-old French whore's vajuju."

Colman is the redeeming part of this unfortunate codicil to The Draughtsman's Contract. At the end she's a sated, swollen gorgon who'll inflame any case of Trumpancholia in the audience, especially in the baleful last shots with the camera underneath her stage-jowls, making her look like an Olmec head that suffered a stroke. Her Anne ultimate becomes one of those royal simpletons in whose sense of pleasure is completely dead, except for the pleasure they take in seeing other people on their knees.

The music is an assortment of baroque mixed with horror movie organ, and minimalist scrapes and thrums on a cello, with Elton John singing "Skyline Pigeon" over a harpsichord during the end titles. Like the costumes, the locations are rich: the ultimate purpose of these palaces was to be used for the movies. Robotically calibrated pan shots and fisheye lens swallow up these interiors, rooms so vast that they curl up at the edges of the screen. Considering these characters, though, fisheye isn't the right word. Stink-eye is more like it.

The Favourite
R; 119 Mins.
CineArts, Palo Alto

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