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Posts Tagged ‘18th century costume drama’


Emma Stone as Abigail Hill Masham — unfortunately the released promotional shots don’t begin to offer an accurate sense of the nature of the typical scene in this costume drama

Friends and readers,

For a third time this year I break a sort of rule with me which is not to write about a work of art that is awful on every level — the other two were the egregiously stupid and misogynistic opera, Marnie, commissioned by the Met, and a crude frantically violent caricature of the violence, cruelty and stupidity that may seem to characterize much of American public life, especially as reflected in westerns, Damsel. That’s a lot for half a year, but three times now a movie, opera, and many more books I don’t begin to read, and TV serial dramas (on channels like FX, Starz) have seemed genuinely to me to function perniciously in our culture, and especially at the present time. I have many friends who want nothing more than a great 18th century historical film or would be interested in a new take in “victim queens” especially the long 18th century variety. Folks, this is not it. This is derision.

It didn’t seem to me a matter for mild bemusement when Anthony Lane of the New Yorker can produce an anondyne (this is screwball comedy you see) amused praise of The Favourite, giving the impression this is still your regular costume drama (quintessential lately in Netflix’s The Crown) by virtue of his complacent tone. He does say it’s “very odd,” but then defends the film by the assertion its “lubricious scenes” are true. They are not; we are presented with wild exaggerations intended to disgust, excite, shock, and rivet us by a kind of fleshly horror. One scene has a very fat man naked with bruises all over him, with a huge fantastical wig being assaulted by projectiles and hosed by over-dressed aristocrats just hilarious with joy; another Abigail stamping to the point of crippling a rabbit for fun; I couldn’t count the number of scenes where Olivia Coleman as Anne is a grotesque embarrassment, a pile of ugly sores, screaming at the top of her lungs she wants or does not want this or that, with Rachel Weisz as a kind of gothic handmaiden dildo-ing the bored queen upon command, bullying her physically (as well as morally), looking like a caricature of a midnight nightmare of maleness in soldier-like courtier outfit.

A. O Scott (Critic’s pick!) of the New York Times is franker but writes in a dense prose which defeats visualization and often remains on an abstract level. How he comes up with how a mountain of self-indulgent flesh (as Coleman is presented) is a figure of “sincerity,” dependent on wheel chair, grim body brace head to toe to go riding, vacillating between okaying Lady Sarah’s desire for more war and higher taxes (from others) to pay for this, and just yelling “no” (knowing nothing about anything) is a “free spirit” is beyond me. His justification too is that all this is faithful to what humanity in the court of Queen Anne in England was:

The best — and also the most troubling — thing about “The Favourite” is its rigorously bleak assessment of human motivations and behavior. The palace is a petri dish aswarm with familiar pathogens of egoism, cruelty and greed. A sentimental soul might wish for a glimpse of something else, but at the same time it’s hard to say that anything is missing from this tableau, which is also a devastating, flattering and strangely faithful mirror.


The first close-up shot of Olivia Coleman as Anne, witheringly told by Lady Sarah she looks “like a badger”

It is true that in this film there is not one character who acts morally, who appears to have any sense that anyone ever acts morally, who shows any kindness, true courtesy or respect for anyone else. At every opportunity, spite, corruption, sensual gratification as a major motive in life with a complete lack of moderating reason is put before us. I am aware I will be told don’t I understand irony or satire. I reply:  I can recognize when a pretense of satire is used to as a cover for rottenness.

I have read a biography of Anne Stuart, Queen of England between 1702 and 1714; a volume of her letters to and from Sarah Churchill (they did address one another as Mrs Marley and Mrs Freeman) together with Abigail Masham’s letters. Also essays suggesting lesbian attachments, rivalry, and lately (as scholars love to elevate the view of the figures they study — it’s an identity thing, theirs) that Anne was by no means an ignoramus, and while Sarah, Lady Churchill bullied her badly to make political choices favoring the wealth of her husband, his career, their Blenheim palace, favoring war, the merchants in the UK, and the Whig establishment (represented by James Smith as Godolphin in the film), she, Anne, wanted these, was complicit, and when she changed course, and put the Tories (represented by Nicholas Hoult as Harley), it was not just that she was breaking free of Sarah at long last and plummeting herself into the arms of Abigail. When I left to see the film I felt good to think a new female icon would enter the “familiar queen” matter, one not attractive to men, one perhaps lesbian, with a sad frustrated life (tragic over the loss of so many pregnancies and the ruination of her body); when I left, I told myself if this is the way Anne Stuart is going to be dramatized, I hope this is the last movie about “her” I ever see.


Lady Sarah in a “fun” mud bath with Queen Anne, they both make themselves much moustaches — characters in this film are repeatedly thrown into the mud, into ditches, made filthy and humiliated by this

The movie is an argument no woman should ever be given power because they are hysterical, ignorant, easily debauched: by the end of the movie, Abigail Masham is not the virtuous downtrodden scullery maid, birched at will, any longer, but she has learnt very little and is herself involved with debauched grotesque sex scenes. She has achieved title, income and we see her jerk her husband’s penis off as a form of sex in payment. Sarah Churchill is a violent, cruel egoistic ruthless woman (a monstrous sort of Thatcher), who appears to hate Anne. And Anne is a helpless blimp. When Sarah is thrown out, and Abigail (this is the kind of detail the film uses to justify itself) doesn’t read the political documents, Anne bumbles through them, falling asleep as she cannot understand what they are about. The historical Anne may have had a stroke towards the end of her life. This is the most anti-feminist film I’ve seen in a long time and that’s going some.

Some of the images reminded me of the vilest ones I ever saw picturing Hilary Clinton, which a  group of articles on the defamation of Marie Antoinette by her contemporaries during her imprisonment and trial argued were in alignment as to what was to be inferred. Profoundly unnatural sexed-up hag.  There was no real tenderness in evidence in Anne or Abigail over the pathetic 17 rabbits the queen keeps in her bedchamber:  they were self-centered children at play with toys.

That the egregiously vulgar language (I don’t know how many times the word “fuck” is hurled around rooms), anachronistic high-jinks, and utterly distasteful interactions between the characters are not meant as satire but as substitutes for the high-action of a male movie with all its bloody corpses and seething action-intrigue that recent fantasy costume dramas have come to lead a thirties-to-forties audience to expect can be seen in the level of noise in this film. Each time a bird is killed we get a close up of the animal’s agony along with a deafening gun noise.

The women are repeatedly shown to be as violent and aggressive as men. They slap one another very hard; they thrown one another down — even Anne gets this treatment from Lady Sarah; all three major women and some of the men are seen vomiting into vases. We get exaggerated stylized versions of males dressed up in wild Restoration type garb; the worst wigs of the contemporary portraits on the men. All bowing and preening in high heels. Masquerade type make-up. The point of this is to entertain by startling you — as if the audience was a bunch of hens sitting in a yard and someone shoots off a gun. I used the word repulsion because I remembered back to Polanski’s unspeakably exploitative movie about depression in a repressed young woman, Repulsion, but really it was just nerve-wracking, continually deeply unpleasant and on the whole revolting. On Wikipedia we are told Repulsion is considered by some to be Polanski’s greatest film; surely something has gone deeply awry with any set of aesthetic or moral understanding that can come up with this judgement or say The Favourite is the treat of this season (women’s film it’s implied) to see.

There seems to be desire to transform the conventional “victim queen” movie — strength of character is in Mary Queen of Scots translated into woman as male warrior, possible lesbian, by no means “a loser” but trapped because she thought she had to stay married.


Saoirse Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots is also addicted to in-your-face gunning other creatures down (she also affects a strong Scots accent).

The Favourite does use lines from Anne and other letters by Sarah but the screenplay has no sense at all of history, of what makes communicable good art, repetitious events.  This is specious travesty. Save your money and don’t throw away time for something from which you may emerge from with a headache from the noise, and anything but refreshment from the mean obscenity of many of the scenes.

Ellen

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