The Favourite

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* * * *

Here’s what The Favourite is not: it is not two hours of Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz burping, spewing, pissing and farting while covered in sores, leeches, scabs and lesions. It isn’t ribald, outrageous or scatalogical. And it isn’t riddled with deliberate anachronisms; comparisons to Marie Antoinette are misguided.

Rather, let’s pitch it thus: Barry Lyndon meets All About Eve. Yorgos Lanthimos has absolutely and deliberately based his aesthetic for this compelling, intriguing and extremely funny film upon the former (just as he absolutely channelled The Shining for his last film The Killing of a Sacred Deer) while the latter, at least to my mind, informs the plot.

Emma Stone plays a young fallen woman, Abigail, who arrives, by luck of a minor family relationship, at the Court of Queen Anne. Given a job in the kitchen, she quickly figures out that the path to power (the Queen, played by Colman) requires the displacement of her best friend, Lady Sarah (Weisz). While the Court is involved with war with France, Abigail and Sarah wage war with each other for the Queen’s affection.

The dialogue is supremely witty, the design glorious, and the acting sublime. Colman, despite having such a distinctive look and vocal quality, is utterly convincing as every character she plays, and her Anne is one of her finest creations. This Queen is complicated, contradictory, confounding: childish at times, wracked with gout and sadness, she seems utterly malleable, yet the question of just how much she is aware of the intrigue around her is one of the film’s most compelling tensions. Colman owns the role; it’s a triumph for her.

Weisz and Stone play off each other (and Colman) beautifully; they are so dissimilar in every way – Weisz mature, court-savvy, restrained yet savage when necessary, Stone young, naïve (initially), and possessed of nothing but guile – but always on the same artistic page. Both Sarah and Abigail are fascinating, multi-faceted women; there is much more to both of them than might initially seem, and their actions, and our sympathies, move in surprising and disconcerting directions.

Lanthimos stages all this with a complex palette of tone and style; while the film is undeniably funny, he imbues it with levels of sadness, tragedy and horror. In particular, his use of an astonishingly wide lens, big fluid camera movement and multiple whip-pans complements his use of a musical palette steeped both in classicism and the kind of monotonous plunking that made Killing of a Sacred Deer so unnerving. These courtiers may all be playing a game, but the consequences are bloody serious.

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DENIAL

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** (out of five)

Denial, about the lawsuit lodged by British Holocaust denier David Irving against the American historian, author and Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt, is a depressingly inadequate movie; three excellent performances and undeniably gripping – and important – subject matter just manage to support a dunderheaded script, ham-fisted direction and a lead performance from Rachel Weiss that borders on the unwatchable.

Irving sued Lipstadt in the British courts for libel after she published, through Penguin Books, her 1993 magnum opus, Denying The Holocaust, which took aim at deniers such as himself. She fought the lawsuit in London with the legal team of solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson). Irving (Timothy Spall) represented himself. Needless to say, the case attracted reams of attention and was considered of massive import: as the movie never fails to remind us, essentially the historical occurrence of the Holocaust was on trial.

Subtle the script isn’t – and it’s by David Hare (who actually has written very few produced feature films). On the nose dialogue bangs and clangs loudly and frequently, exposition is vomited forth rather than layered in, information is repeated. Director Mick Jackson joins in the spoon-feeding; he has a particular affinity for cutaways designed to make sure we got it; when someone mentions, at Auschwitz, history being beneath their feet, we cut to their feet. Rampton’s fondness for alcohol is hammered home with endless (and I mean endless) close-ups of him opening bottles, pouring from bottles, handing out glasses of wine and so forth, but literally nothing is made of this, not dramatic tension (is it going to affect him?) nor irony (wow, the guy is brilliant and an alcoholic!) And a particular statue in London is burdened with too much symbolism for any prop to bear. Almost needless to add, Jackson overuses Howard Shore’s mediocre score; hearing it well up with every dramatic moment – in a film full of them – made me titchy and cross.

DENIALLuckily, Spall’s amazing performance manages to avoid such heavy-handedness, which is kind of a miracle. His smug, self-satisfied, creepy-lipped Irving is absolutely repellant, a lizard of a man, and can’t help but evoke the current American president. Spall is simply one of the best thespians in the world and Irving is one of his masterpieces. Playing the good guys, Wilkinson and Scott are both also excellent, which is particularly admirable in Wilkinson’s case as his character is the most interesting of the three and, in the world of this movie, therefore the worst written (see above, “endless shots of alcohol for no dramatic reason”).

But Weisz as Lipstadt… oof. For a start – but gratingly present throughout – there is her ear-torturing attempt at a Queens accent; it’s the aural equivalent of drinking cat piss. From there, two notes – pensive and screeching – attempt to convey a real person who, one can only hope, is far more complex and at least a teensy bit more likable. Weisz is in every sequence of the movie, and every time she speaks you wish she wouldn’t, which really works against some of the movie’s big ideas, including the defense team not calling survivors as witnesses.

Ultimately, this is a film about the law, not the Holocaust, with a despicable antagonist and, as portrayed here, an annoying protagonist. As such, despite the naturally intriguing nature of the material, it doesn’t feel justified, especially since many years have passed since the trial. Lipstadt herself has written, of Irving, “Let him fade from everyone’s radar screens.” So why is he on our big ones?

DENIAL

The Lobster

thelobster-posters*** (out of five)

The Lobster – particularly the first, superior half – reminded me a lot of Milan Kundera, whom I read a lot of, devotedly, when I was in my early 20s. Yorgos Lanthimos’ slightly surreal, slightly dystopian, slightly funny and slightly profound fifth feature – his first in English – shares those qualities with Kundera (at least as I read him) and Rachel Weisz’s story-book narration – both objective and subjective simultaneously – reminded me of Kundera’s voice, which always had an omniscient quality while also being teasing and witty.

The characters in The Lobster all speak in a way that sounds translated, which may also contribute to my “Kundera effect”. Their delivery is deadpan, formal, relatively flat, and highly deliberate. It’s not just that they may indeed be speaking dialogue that has been translated from Lanthimos’ native Greek. The actors are following a strict line of direction here; they’re all on the same page, aspiring to a slightly mysterious goal, and together, along with the natural lighting (mostly available light was used in the shooting), the absurd elements of the script, and the constant use of highly brazen metaphor, a specific and unique universe is created.

The fist half of the film is set in a lush but chilly resort hotel (placed nowhere in particular but shot in Ireland) where David (a pudgy Colin Farrell), a recent divorcee, arrives to discover his destiny: life with a new partner or life as an animal of his choosing. In the rules of this world, he has forty-five days to find a soulmate within the resort – one who shares at least one major trait of his own – or undergo the transformation. He can choose any animal he wishes, and he chooses a lobster. It’s a good choice, according to the hotel manager (Olivia Colman, once again proving she can do no wrong); “most people choose to be a dog, which is why there are so many dogs”.

These scenes in the hotel are intriguing and often very funny (in a very dry way); Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Jessica Barden, Ashley Jensen (from Extras) and in particular Lanthimos regular Angeliki Papoulia all do specific work here, adhering to the rules of Lanthimos’ game admirably. The second half, which expands the story significantly, is less engaging, and feels longer and more self-indulgent; it also can be a little baffling, which the first half, despite its overtones of surrealism and absurdity, never is.

Lanthimos is an acquired taste and shows no signs, as his career ascends, of altering his style to expand his audience (which is happening anyway, especially given his move into English and his use of movie stars). This is an accessible, fun and occasionally frustrating entry into his body of work.