The Favourite–A Compelling Menage à Trois

 

 

The Favourite

Nominated for ten Academy Awards including best picture, The Favourite is perhaps one of the best revenge thrillers of 2018. Reminiscent of Downton Abbey with its opulent settings and costumes, The Favourite is also an historical drama.

In the early 18th century court of Queen Anne, we see a mentally fragile and damaged queen (the sublime Olivia Colman), facing the usual suspects vying to seize the growing power of an emerging empire. The queen’s closest advisor and friend, Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), governs the country behind the scenes through manipulating Anne’s vulnerabilities, infantilizing her, and enabling the Queen’s weakened health to worsen.

When Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, desolate and no longer considered aristocratic, Lady Sarah becomes indebted to her for assuaging the Queen’s episode of gout. Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots if she can become a trusted confidante of the queen. The plot thickens, as we see the two ladies-in-waiting wrestle for the queen’s attention and affection. Queen Anne seems to slip deeper into madness, while delighting in being fought over by Lady Sarah and Lady Abigail.

 

The Favourite movie

The Favourite is not only a thriller but a love triangle. Are Lady Sarah and Lady Abigail really in love with the Queen or simply ingratiating themselves in order to manipulate her for their own self interests? We’re never quite sure.

Colman, Weisz and Stone are fully in control in every scene, giving powerhouse performances. Their virtuoso acting is the engine that drives the subplots and unexpected twists and turns at Kensington Palace. (With subchapter titles like “I Dreamt I Stabbed You in the Eye”, the viewer is still left unprepared.) In the end, however, it is Colman who is unforgettable, whose eyes subtly water at hurtful comments, the gaze of one who hopes that no one notices the injury. Those eyes and the subtly of her acting, repeatedly holding this viewer’s undivided attention, are exceptional.

Through her mesmerizing performance as Queen Anne– broken, impulsive, lustful, needy and angry all at once, –Olivia Colman owns almost every iconic moment. All is communicated through her eyes. Few can rival that.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone give the performances of their lives too, with tantrums, furious raging, and sexual excesses. Uncomfortably intimate close-ups, with a wide range of emotions richly displayed, reveal their desperate loneliness and despair.

While the wicked schemes and betrayals make The Favourite a very strong contender for an Academy Award for best picture, the historical setting was puzzling at times. It is the early 18th century and England is at war with the French, but The Favourite does little to inform the audience that the war is known as Queen Anne’s War and foreshadows the Napoleonic  Wars so this is a critical time for building an empire. The addition of a little historical context would have put the crowning touch on The Favourite.

 

La La Land–Insipid But Entertaining

 

La La Land

This 2016 Academy Award nominated musical (a record-tying 14 nominations), written and directed by Damien Chazelle (the wunderkind creator of the astonishing Whiplash, see my December 8, 2014 review) is this year’s can-do-no-wrong rom-com starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

La La Land is a bold resurrection of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers 1940-50s musical with a blend of nostalgia (using filtered-lens cinematography and costumes) mixed with the novelty of contemporary millennial life in Los Angeles. A flip-book of competing images of vintage and modern LA with twirling skirts and old-fashioned dancing, La La Land is all about dreaming for the big break in Hollywood.

An undeniable paean to the joy and ecstasy of following your passions, La La Land also touches upon the sacrifices to one’s personal life, to missed human connections and to other dreams that will never come true. Part “Never-never Land” and part “Singing in the Rain”.   The conventional storyline –love vs. ambition–never really rises above the forgettable.

Perhaps the most interesting interlude in the film, however, is Mia and Seb’s friend, Keith (John Legend) whose relaxed approach to the commercial aspects of being a musician challenge Seb’s dogmatic “purist” views of selling out to music venues. The difference between selling out and breaking through is not always clear, and “La La Land” is not so hypocritical as to pretend otherwise. I loved this observation.

The cinematography and special effects are the best part of this movie. Except for the song “City of Stars”, the music is more competent than dazzling. You’re more likely to remember what you saw than what you heard.

Where is La La Land going? Is this L couple going to make it after all? Should we care? La La Land suffers from what it is supposed to parody: Hollywood’s addiction to artifice and self-congratulation.By the end, La La Land is an imperfect film that entertains, partly because it is a pleasant surprise to see Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone singing and dancing.

Sometimes a movie comes along that is entertaining and refreshingly light when we desire that intensely. Right for this moment, viewers can happily forgive La La Land for not being very good but a deliciously tasty confection of sound and color. I really expected more given all the awards and accolades.

“The Help”– “Telling the Truth Can Be a Revolutionary Act”

Based upon the best-selling 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, “The Help” is a vision of a divided America that is consistent, sometimes terrifying, in its insulting, insinuating dehumanization of African Americans. This movie is also easy-to-like –problematic but ultimately winning–and has now earned a huge $154.4 million in box revenues.

Skeeter (played competently by Emma Stone), a young white journalism major who has recently graduated from the University of Mississippi, has returned home to Jackson to find that Constantine (Cicely Tyson), who raised her, no longer works for her mother. As Skeeter tries to find out what happened to Constantine, she begins to see the reality of life in Jackson for the black residents who are a vital part of the white community’s quality of life. Aibileen (impeccably portrayed by Viola Davis), the heroine of the movie, tells her life to Skeeter who secretly interviews her at night.  Slowly other maids bravely come forth, at great personal risk,  to tell their stories of the  same suffering, the same humiliating circumstances on the cusp of the civil rights revolution.

Irony is often heavy handed.  For example, the Junior League’s fund-raising for the sake of “the Poor Starving Children of Africa” while treating the poor African-Americans of Jackson as if they were subhuman.  Minnie, another black maid, is defiantly humorous.   Played by Octavia Spencer who seems to be paying tribute to the maids portrayed in the 1930’s and 1940’s by notable African-American actresses with few options in theater or cinema, her bravura performance  adds a much-needed comic element.

The cycle of racism spins in too-familiar patterns.  The white babies the black maids raise become the housewives who insult them.  Only Skeeter is motivated to change things for those who have cared for her and her peers. One other young white woman in town, Celia (again, a superb Jessica Chastain of “The Debt” and “The Tree of Life”), seems to see the ugly truth underpinning the superficial beauty of the town.

The extraordinary actress, Viola Davis (from “Doubt”, and the Tony award-winning “Fences”) infuses Aibileen with a dignity and warmth that fully reveals an exceptionally strong female character in spite of some of the caricature that her role could have conveyed.  “The Help” belongs to her. Even when the story drifts to the white women from hell –the Junior League Ole Miss debutantes epitomized by Miss Hilly (fiercely played by Bryce Dallas Howard), Davis’s performance lingers in the viewer’s mind, with  tough, wrenchingly vulnerable scenes with a pudgy, insecure little white girl at risk of irreparable damage. Another story is also a subtext, however.  Inside all these different homes, black and white, women with hearts and souls tended to the urgent matters of everyday life, like the care and feeding of children, and the seeking of approval from their husbands.  The white women are no happier than the black women, only meaner and more frightened by the impending change they can feel subliminally. No one voices their frustration with their circumstances except, in the end, the help.

This movie could have devolved into a cartoon of good vs. evil, but the actresses refuse to demean their characters by mocking them in such shorthand.  Only Miss Hilly and Elizabeth, the two most strident racists among the socialites, are virtually one-dimensional.  But these actresses find every possible nuance to show their neurotic tendencies, their fear of social ostracism and save their performances from being caricatures.

The era evoked in  “The Help” is not even fifty years ago but presents us with the painful recognition of the best and the worst of US race relations.

Update: For an additional article (November 9) about “The Help” which I wrote, go to the website www.womensmemoirs.com.