10 January 2019
Not My Favourite
Movies, misery and sexual politics.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Fancy two hours of misery? No? Don’t go to see The Favourite, then. Here, a deeply unhappy Queen Anne, a bullying Sarah Duchess of Marlborough and her ruthlessly ambitious cousin Abigail are a selfish, irresponsible and petty trio – poisonous, poisoning and poisoned – who make themselves thoroughly miserable by scheming against each other, playing power games, pursuing vicious vendettas and indulging in emotional and sexual manipulation. It isn’t light – it’s dark and heavy.
Don’t be fooled by the marketing – this is not a comedy. It isn’t without moments of humour, but they’re few and far between. After all, this is a film from Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, so we could have guessed that we were in for something rather grim and bleak.
It could have been a comedy if the director had taken a satirical approach and invited us to laugh at his subjects and their antics (this would have been in keeping with the period – the early eighteenth century was the golden age of mordant satire – the film mentions Jonathan Swift and in 1712 Alexander Pope handled very similar material in his masterpiece of satirical comedy The Rape of the Lock). But the director does something else instead – he invites us to sympathise with them. He just about pulls it off, thanks to the three superb central performances. But it’s potentially disastrous – the main characters are not very sympathetic and it’s difficult to see them as victims of anything other than their own cruelties, jealousies and selfish ambitions; so in asking for sympathy they’re in real danger of coming across as merely self-pitying, which risks irritating the viewers as well as depressing them.
There’s one scene where Abigail repeatedly hits herself in the face with a heavy book so she can present herself to the Queen bleeding and sobbing and thus gain her sympathy. It could have been a hilarious piece of slapstick, but it isn’t. It’s played completely straight and the viewers are uncomfortably implicated in the director’s sadism and the character’s masochism. This isn’t the knock-about comedy of Tom and Jerry – it’s the naked cruelty of Itchy and Scratchy.
So why the rave reviews? Well, to be fair, it is beautifully filmed and brilliantly acted. But is something else at play here? Would any professional critic in this day and age dare to disrespect this kind of film? A film where all the lead parts are female. A film about women – ballsy women who swear and kick men in the balls and have sex with each other. A film in which all men are bastards or useless idiots.
And yet, is this film’s political correctness merely superficial? Is it in fact a deeply misogynistic movie? When one of the male characters exclaims with condescending contempt “We know that you women nurse your harms as if they were sucking babes” we are clearly meant to take this as a blatant display of misogyny, but this film does prove him right – the three central characters do indeed wallow in their pain and victimhood. The story reinforces many female stereotypes – the three women are bitches, victims, little better than squabbling children – manipulative, scheming, subjective, immature, back-stabbing, self-regarding, self-pitying, emotional, unbalanced, irrational, and, worst of all, trivial.
There’s a lot of masturbation in this film, which is somehow fitting. It’s all very masturbatory – self-absorbed and inconsequential, these three characters are literally and metaphorically wanking around while the country faces grave political and military crises in the world outside their palace. The monarch and her two favourites are at the very centre of power but they are incapable of handling power responsibly, and it’s left to the men around them to govern the country in parliament and to defend it on the battlefield of Blenheim. And it’s hard to see what the characters’ strategic aims are. Power? Not really. Wealth? Not in itself. Status? Perhaps. Fun? No, most certainly not. Sarah Churchill just wants to further her husband’s career, and it seems that Abigail simply wants a bit of peace and quiet to read a book. Banal and mundane aims which most women have managed to achieve within the confines of an ordinary marriage.
History is fact and movies are entertainment, quite separate things, and there’s no reason why the one should slavishly follow the other; there’s really no serious danger of the two being confused. But the changes and inventions which a film-maker introduces to history are significant indications of his or her intentions. In reality, Queen Anne was a conscientious and capable monarch and her court was dull and dutiful; but in the film she is hopelessly and helplessly inadequate, her court disintegrating into decadence around her. Abigail’s victimhood credentials are established by a fictitious back-story – there’s no historical evidence that she was pimped out by her father to pay off his gambling debts. Similarly, the chain of events which turns Sarah into a victim – the poisoning, the disfiguring horse-riding accident, imprisonment in a brothel – is a fiction. The film’s uneasy handling of the Duke of Marlborough is also telling. He’s kept well to the margins. He’s central to the film’s context, but to bring him centre stage would have upset the film entirely – one of the giants of history, a man who is neither a bastard nor an idiot but a genuine hero, his real achievements as the victor of Blenheim would have dwarfed the three women and blatantly exposed the pettiness of their actions. So Mark Gatiss is left with something of a non-part.
But perhaps the most puzzling (and yet most interesting) aspect of the film is that the three women are so miserable. They’re unhappy throughout, as if unhappiness is a woman’s natural lot. And this film is not alone in that respect. Has anyone else noticed this very curious, indeed fascinating, fact? More and more films have female actors in lead roles (good) and tell women’s stories (good) but – those female characters are almost inevitably doomed to have a miserable time and those stories are unhappy ones. Think of these recent movies – all excellent films, but…
Arrival: Amy Adams’s lead character’s child is dying and her marriage is disintegrating. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Frances Macdormand’s lead character’s daughter has been kidnapped, raped and murdered; Abbie Cornish’s husband is dying of cancer. Toni Erdmann: Sandra Hüller’s international executive breaks down under the stress of her work and the interventions of her eccentric father. First Man: a very dark and gloomy film, considering it’s about an all-American triumph, and the well-spring of the gloom is Claire Foy’s character – the film focuses on the wife’s fears and anxieties about her husband’s dangerous mission rather than on any pride or excitement she might have felt about it; it just can’t bring itself to give them a happy ending even though the mission is a success. Mary Shelley: well, yes, fair enough, Mary Shelley really did have a rough time. Then there’s the gin-sodden unhappiness of The Girl On The Train and the vicious discontent of the Gone Girl. I didn’t see Glenn Close in The Wife, but that wasn’t a bundle of fun if the trailer was anything to go by. And even in relatively light-weight genres – comedy, melodrama, the heist movie (The Devil Wears Prada, Bridesmaids, Widows) the lead character has a pretty miserable time. TV is matching the cinema with a plethora of female leads, but these rarely fare any better: invariably they have a parent with dementia, a troubled child, a missing child, marital problems, etc, etc.
Why is this? Are film makers (producers, directors and screen-writers are still predominantly male) telling women “OK, we’ll let you in, but we won’t let you have a good time”? Is it what film-makers think a female audience wants? Is it in fact what a female audience wants? (There’s a lot to be said for having a good cry, after all; Winston Churchill himself was often in floods of tears, never more so than when watching a movie.) Is unhappiness indeed a woman’s natural lot? Is it a symptom of a wider female crisis – the pressures of conforming to a new ideal (the ballsy leader?) perhaps even more stressful than conforming to the old ideals (the perfect wife / mother / beauty)? Is it simply because we feel we’re living through gloomy times in general? Is it just a cheap story-telling trick (the easiest way of drawing the audience in, of involving it, is to make it feel sorry for the main character)?
You could say that Hamlet, King Lear, MacBeth and Othello aren’t happy stories about happy men and women, either. But I suspect the influences here aren’t Tragic Art but other, more contemporary and popular genres such as soap-opera (never-ending domestic crises) and misery-lit (that strange form of autobiography, specialising in childhood suffering / neglect / abuse, which suddenly and mysteriously burst onto the scene and inexplicably filled the best-seller lists ten or twenty years ago but now looks pretty mainstream – a background sob-story appears to be an essential part of any young singer / writer / blogger / kitchen guru / model / actor / entrepreneur’s marketing strategy these days).
Perhaps it’s just the films I’ve seen. Perhaps I’ve missed the non-angsty ones. There are exceptions, of course; Borgen (because women’s causes are further advanced in the Nordic countries, perhaps?) and the splendidly entertaining Killing Eve (perhaps because it was actually scripted by a woman?) on television, for instance. But it does seem to be a real and contemporary cultural phenomenon. I do seem to come out of the cinema these days feeling as if someone has been rubbing my nose in someone else’s misery for two hours, and longing for a film about a competent and contented heroine.
Mary Queen of Scots is out soon. Poor Saoirse Ronan – Mary can’t be anything other than doomed and unhappy, can she? But I have high hopes for Margot Robbie; Elizabeth can be competent and contented, can’t she? My fingers are crossed.