Again, I promised books. But this post has already been delayed, and I want to say something about The Favourite before it becomes a distant memory: although I’m not sure I can honestly say I liked it more than Spider-Verse, it is probably the most Josh movie released that year – which is to say that it’s a demented travesty of a prestige costume drama, an elegant swan that attacks the audience for having the gall to absently cross its path.
Set in early 18th century England, The Favourite centres around three historical figures: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), who has become a broken woman, unfit for political leadership; Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), Duchess of Marlborough and the queen’s secret lover, who uses her relationship as a means of exerting political influence; and lastly Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), a destitute woman who starts out as a servant in the queen’s castle, but who quickly insinuates herself as a rival for the queen’s affections in the hopes of securing the nobility for herself. Sarah and Abigail thus set to work destroying each other. These two really did jockey over being Queen Anne’s favourite, although whether this took the form of a manipulative lesbian love triangle may be a tad more poetically speculative.
The Favourite is ostensibly a comedy – and a pretty bawdy one at that – but even on that level the affair is slightly off kilter. It puts just enough effort into creating that familiar prim historical fiction aura so that it can drop in its anachronistic sense of humor for maximum impact. And it’s incredibly mean about it; this is one of those comedies where everyone seems to be driven entirely by their id and act for the sole purpose of screwing others over for personal gain. We’re seemingly given an assemblage of human meanness to laugh at while marveling at all the zingers being thrown about.
Except when things get unpleasant, the movie turns and rubs your face in it and makes you feel mighty uncomfortable. And the overarching structure of the story is one of serious tragedy about the consequences of sacrificing everything for sake of power. These people become sympathetic without becoming likable, because the heartbreak and pain that they inflict upon themselves and each other with is very real. In a sense, everyone gets what they want, and it’s horrible.
The movie is thus mean on a meta level as well: its tonal oscillations push your buttons, and it knows it. It’s laughs disarm you for the dagger thrust. I’m, to be honest, not 100% sure how I feel about a movie that seems to actually want to hurt its audience through emotional manipulation (it’s a somewhat different sensation than, say, a Lynch or Cohen bros movie, where it feels like the movie itself is almost unaware of its own incongruous elements), but I’ll give it the credit of being thematically apiece with the story it’s telling.
The production design and cinematography reflect this, juxtaposing florid baroqueness with aggressive, fun-house style ugliness. Incredible costumes and fisheye lenses abound.
In doing all this, The Favourite also steps into a sub-tradition of sorts that uses a society whose insular nature, social stratification and complex rules attain a highly aestheticized degree of ceremonialness as a sort of instrument for looking at the human heart; how mercenary motives and injustices can operate under cover of a pretty face, and the perils of attempting to successfully navigate such a world. It isn’t nearly anywhere as sophisticated in exploring this as, say, a Jane Austen novel is, and the thing edges just a little too close to a kind of easy, edgy misanthropy, but it does get the benefit of throwing everything into sharp relief by making its world so farcically obsessed with utilitarian calculus and political power plays (and, uh, duck racing); you cannot afford to have real feelings in The Favourite, but, tragically, the characters are indeed real humans with real feelings.
The Favourite is a nasty, vulgar piece of work which has a soul in spite of itself. Something about that struck a chord with me.