Main Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
I am glad to inform everyone that principal photography wrapped on my new adaptation of that old favorite, The Pajama Game, last week. The footage has all been sent to Amazon studios for a rough cut and I got the nicest telegram from the head of production in which he called the rushes ‘simply unbelievable’. The editors tell me that it should be ready for streaming by midsummer. If it’s successful, it will be the first in a series of Vicki Lester musical remakes for modern multicultural audiences. Mr. David, my brilliant screenwriter and I are already planning out a new version of Flower Drum Song set in 1980s Berlin with a background of the collapse of communism and an HMS Pinafore set Tom Clancy style aboard a nuclear submarine. I’ve put some feelers out to Alec Baldwin’s people to see if he might be interested in one of the leading roles.
As I am rested and raring to go, I decided to forego a leisure cruise back to Los Angeles aboard the Normitania and I bid a fond farewell to Captain Drew and gave him firm instructions to head back home without dawdling in the South Seas while I boarded a jet back home. I have been several months away from Casa Maine and really needed to get back stateside. I was both gratified and somewhat put out that none of my fellow passengers recognized me behind my large sunglasses, Hermes scarf, and full-length faux chinchilla wrap. I do so hate posing for selfies with the hoi polloi but there’s always that little thrill and ego boost when some random stranger shrieks out ‘It’s Mrs. Norman Maine!’ and all heads turn your way.
I returned to my manse off Sunset Boulevard and found everything more or less in one piece. Leah, my assistant, had taken good care of everything in my absence, although the quarterly reports on sales of MNM consumer goods at Pic and Save should have been better. We’ll have a strategy meeting on such things later in the week. In the meantime, what with jet lag and time changes, I was in a somewhat odd state, so I poured myself a tiny tot of Laphroaig single malt and put on a film to view. My choice was last year’s surprise hit, The Favourite, a tale of female court intrigues in early 18th century Great Britain. I had missed it in theaters so settled in to enjoy it on my large LED HDTV.
Intelligent films for thinking adults are in short supply these days and those few that do appear and are well made often do surprisingly well. The Favourite, made in England for a mere pittance of about fifteen million dollars, grossed something over one hundred million worldwide as discerning audiences flocked to something that did not feature costumed super heroes, CGI battles, or fleets of space ships. The time is 1708. The Stuart dynasty is drawing to a close as the childless and aging Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) continues her reign. Anne is aided by her childhood friend and confidante, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) who cossets her, puts up with her tantrums, and occasionally shares her bed. Enter Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone). Abigail’s father has descended into penury and cast her adrift on the fortunes of the world. She travels to court to ask her wealthy cousin for a job and is granted the post of scullery maid. Abigail has no intention of staying stuck below stairs and soon sneaks her way into the Queen’s chambers with an herbal remedy for her gout, gaining royal attention and favor and is promoted to lady in waiting. As Sarah becomes more and more involved with actually running the country, something poor Anne is not really capable of doing, Abigail continues to ingratiate herself into Anne’s life, and eventually bed. This sets up a complicated triangle where Abigail tries to supplant Sarah and Sarah tries desperately to maintain her position as the favourite. I shan’t reveal who wins but it becomes clear by the end of the film that it’s a position that comes at great cost.
The Favourite is a film about women, women’s roles, women’s relationship to power, and what women need to do in a patriarchal society to succeed. The Queen is the most powerful person in the realm, but she’s a bundle of neuroses who, when boxed in politically, can think of no better strategy than a public swoon. Her two courtiers know that their standing in life is based on their husbands standing in the social pecking order. Sarah’s husband John Churchill (Mark Gatiss) is a war hero, newly created duke, and ultimately ancestor of Winston. Abigail begins the film unmarried and soon knows she has to have a titled husband to be truly competitive, but as a commoner, she has to overcome certain obstacles in the rigid class system of the time. The general relationships and triangle are historical fact and letters from the three women and their contemporaries portray the rivalry. It is not known whether there was in fact a sexual element. The real Queen Anne was still married to her consort, Prince George, in 1708 and by most accounts the marriage was relatively happy, despite Anne losing all seventeen children she bore in infancy.
The Favourite has that lush historical look that so many British period pieces have and was shot primarily on location at Hampton Court and at Hatfield House. The sets and production design (Fiona Crombie) and costumes (Sandy Powell) take us back to an alien, but opulent world of odd pastimes and over indulgence. I was particularly taken with the lighting of the night time scenes around the use of candles to give a soft and romantic glow to the pastimes of the court. It certainly looks much more high budget than the published figures would suggest.
All three of the central actresses are in top form, but the movie belongs to Olivia Colman’s Anne. This Anne is alternatively simpering and imperious. Full of neurotic tics, she transfers emotional energy in a quicksilver manner to friends, political opponents, and a menagerie of rabbits that represent all of her dead babies. You can’t take her eyes off of her. She was awarded pretty much every acting award for 2018 including the best actress Oscar for her performance in The Favourite and it’s easy to see why. She’s mercurial and vain and pathetic but there’s never a false note. You never see her performing. She simply is. Both Weisz and Stone are prior Oscar winners and when the three get together, it’s a master class in film performance.
The literate script is by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Ms. Davis apparently began on the project more than 20 years ago after studying screen writing at night school. It just took several decades for all the pieces to fall into place. It was directed by the Greek filmmaker, Yorgos Lanthimos, whose previous work includes such oddities as The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. He wouldn’t have been my first choice for a period costume drama, but he obviously has an excellent understanding of the human psyche and an eye for fine detail in both frame composition and action.
The Favourite is a film to be savored and thought about. I recommend it highly.
Lye soap. Tumble into the mud. Pigeon shooting. Court ball. Gratuitous vomiting queen. Horse dragging. Gratuitous Nicholas Hoult. Fast duck. Orders of exile. Rabbit stepping.
Originally from Seattle Washington, land of mist, coffee and flying salmon, Mrs. Norman Maine sprang to life, full grown like Athena, from Andy’s head during a difficult period of life shortly after his relocation to Alabama.