Screening History: The Fraught Pathos of “The Favourite” (2018)

If you know anything about it me, it’s that I’m an absolute sucker for a good costume drama. It’s been a while since I saw one that really blew me away, so when I saw the trailers for The Favourite, I was intrigued by what appeared to be a very irreverent take on the genre, particularly as it seemed like it was going to be as humourous as it was opulent. I have to say, I was very impressed by the film (except for the ending, to which I shall return shortly).

In brief, the film tells of the declining years of Queen Anne of Great Britain (Olivia Colman), who as the story begins is under the domination of the formidable Lady Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Their dysfunctional relationship is soon interrupted, however, by the arrival of Churchill’s impoverished cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) who soon sets her own sights on becoming the queen’s favourite. She succeeds, though she soon finds that being so close to the font of power comes with its own price.

It is sometimes very difficult (if not impossible) to really capture the strangeness of earlier historical periods, to convey to modern spectators the oddities and foibles of the past. Some filmmakers have succeeded at it (Peter Greenaway is one example), and clearly Yorgos Lanthimos deserves to join that select group. Between the outlandish makeup and wigs worn by the male characters and the (sometimes heavy-handed) use of the fisheye lens and shots taken from below, we are led to see this as a very disturbing world quite unlike our own.

At times, Olivia Colman (who’s becoming quite adept at playing queens) threatens to steal the show. Her Anne is at once imperious, pathetic, endearing, and Colman manages to wring every drop of morbid pathos from the role, leading us to feel sorry for Anne even as we condemn some aspects of her personality. She is clearly a woman who has long struggled to develop her own sense of self (with the confidence that entails), and so she relies on Sarah Churchill. There are moments when Colman’s performance slides into the grotesque, but even then Colman doesn’t let us lose sight of the queen’s essential frail humanity. It’s hard not to feel a profound sympathy for this queen who, by the time the story begins, has already lost 17 children and a husband. Small wonder that she pours all of her emotional frustrations into her small hoard of rabbits and into the women who maneuver for her affection. And, to be honest, it’s rather nice to see Queen Anne get some screen time, as she usually gets neglected by popular culture.

By contrast, Rachel Weisz’s Sarah Churchill is a formidable and indomitable personality. She is not afraid to tell Anne exactly what she thinks–as when she tells the monarch that her new makeup style makes her look like a badger–but she is also subject to Anne’s vicious jealousy. Weisz manages to capture Churchill’s biting wit and scathing commentary, at the same time as she makes it clear that this was a woman who cared deeply about the well-being of her country at both the domestic and international level. Weisz also deserves a great deal of credit for allowing a few moments of genuine vulnerability to creep into her characterization as well. We thus come to understand her as a woman quite out of place in her own time and ultimately punished for her unwillingness to conform to the expectations of others, even the queen.

The relationship between Anne and Sarah is as as refreshing as it is contentious. It’s very rare these days to see a film really delve into the complicated relationships between and among women. It’s clear to me at any rate that the film’s Sarah has genuine love and affection for Anne, though it’s somewhat less clear if their erotic encounters stem from genuine attraction or whether it is a rather twisted manifestation of their social roles. I strongly suspect that it is some combination of the two.

I have to admit to some skepticism that Emma Stone (much as I love her) would be able to pull off playing British, but she does it surprisingly well. What’s more, she imbued Abigail with a certain steely strength forged in the crucible of her troubled youth and her abuse at the hands of numerous men in her life. Abigail is not, strictly speaking, a sympathetic character–indeed, she is quite cold, malicious, and calculating–but she is comprehensible. The film allows us to see her as the necessary product of a culture that values women so little and largely views even the most powerful of them as expendable. Cruel as she might be, Stone lets us feel at least a measure of grudging respect for Abigail’s ability to not only survive her harsh environment, but to thrive in it.

Each of these characters, as different as they are, are hefty and complex and textured. Indeed, for all of its visual artistry (which, at times, becomes distracting), the film succeeds most as a character study of three women negotiating the dangerous waters of desire and royal politics. The Favourite doesn’t really want us to like these characters, but it does attempt to understand them. The three leads give some of the finest performances of their careers, and there is an unmistakable chemistry among them.

At a broader level, Lanthimos’ direction is at times distracting, and he seems a bit overly fond of the fisheye lens (which, to my mind, sometimes undercuts the opulence and grandeur of the film’s locations). The film’s truly significant flaw is the ending, which I found far too clever for its own good (in fact, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what it was supposed to signify, if anything). Those flaws aside, The Favourite still manages to take the conventions and contours of the costume drama and turns them on their head. The film is ultimately a biting, scathing, and slightly acidic musing on the nature of power and pleasure in the world of royalty and politics.

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Screening History: “That Hamilton Woman” (1941)

If there’s any genre I love as much as the epic, it’s the costume drama. With all of its sumptuous decor, its melodramatic excess, and its focus on women, it’s a genre tailor-made (it would seem) for the discerning homosexual.

Such, indeed, is That Hamilton Woman, the 1941 film by Alexander Korda, starring the radiant Vivien Leigh and the dashing Laurence Olivier.

Vivien Leigh plays the titular role of Emma Hamilton, a commoner who becomes, first, the wife of the British ambassador Naples and, later, the mistress of the famous admiral Horatio Nelson. Their affair is the scandal of society, and ultimately Nelson must choose between his love for Emma and his duty to his country as the admiral and she, likewise, must decide whether to continue weaving her net about him or to let him go. The two of them must repeatedly confront the essential conflict between their personal love for one another and the responsibility that Horatio has to his country, given that he is one of the few commanders who stands between Napoleon and global domination. In the end, she sends him off to his duty, even though it means the end of their love.

At the beginning of the film, Emma has fallen on hard times, her once-great beauty diminished by years of penury. Yet even the makeup and bedraggled clothing cannot entirely efface Leigh’s exquisite beauty, which radiates outward rom the screen, limned by the dim light coming from outside her prison cell. Indeed, Leigh is one of those talents of old films whose face was made for the camera. With her fine cheekbones, full lips, and slightly-wide (and incredibly expressive) eyes, Leigh’s Emma frequently gazes off into the distance, her luminous eyes seeming to gaze into a future that can never be realized. Even when she sits in a jail cell, she seems to command our gaze.

Indeed, it is precisely Leigh’s performance that endows Emma with her tremendous presence, as a woman whose desires motivate the narrative. Given that the entire film is told as a flashback, I would argue that it is Emma’s perspective that dominates the entire film. In other words, through her perspective that we understand world-historical events to have another element besides the doings of great men on the stage of history. As such, Emma also comes across as a woman determined to see her desires fulfilled, even if that means that she goes against the strictures that society has placed upon women and their sexual behavior.

Emma’s great misfortune, however, is that the world she lives in is utterly incapable of seeing her as anything other than “that Hamilton woman,” an epithet always delivered with contempt, pity, or vituperation. And while she believes that love is the only thing she needs to sustain herself, a series of events have clearly brought her to the point that she is living on the streets, subject to the uncaring justice of the state. Through it all, however, Emma radiates strength, grace, and beauty.

Olivier as Nelson is a bit more unrestrained than one usually sees, and sometimes his performance veers dangerously close to scenery-chewing. However, this seems appropriate, given that he’s playing a man noted for his relentless energy and naval brilliance (it wasn’t every commander, after all, that dared to go after Napoleon Bonaparte). He certainly bears with him that signature Olivier scowl.

The film’s visual design is truly opulent, amply conveying to a jaundiced modern eye the splendour of a bygone era, when countries and individuals bestrode the world like ancient colossi. Despite its grand themes and historical concerns, That Hamilton Woman is equally adept at conveying the deep personal and emotional currents that have an impact on the actions of the great. For the film, Emma’s love of Nelson is true, rich, and deep, which makes its demise with his death at the Battle of Trafalgar all the more wrenching, for we know that Emma will be left with nothing except his illegitimate daughter.

The film’s final tragedy is that it denies us as viewers a view of the events that led Emma from being the mistress of one of the most powerful men in England to a beggar wandering the street. We are left yearning for what it is that fills in that lacuna, even as we also know that to see it would shatter the magnificent illusion that it has already spent so much time constructing. In refusing to grant us this image of her degradation, Emma retains her control on her own story until the very last, he weary countenance gazing into a past that can never be recaptured and a future devoid of even the remotest possibility of joy or love.

Rousing and resonant, That Hamilton Woman is a visually stunning exploration about the ways in which women are forced to maneuver the halls of power. And the punishment that often greets them when they do.