“All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?”

THIS IS A well told, fascinating story (in the “watching a car crash” type of fascination) of Lee Israel, a cranky, friendless alcoholic biographer, fallen on hard times (MeIissa McCarthy in her most compelling role to date). In order to pay the rent, she turns the sale of a letter to her from Katherine Hepburn and the chance discovery (and petty theft) of one from Fanny Bryce into the full-blown business of literary forgeries. She basically invents convincingly ‘real’ letters from famous (and dead) authors, forges their signatures and flogs them to any one of a swath of mainly dodgy dealers.

Along the way, she hooks up – “befriends” is too strong a word – with an old acquaintance and fellow drunk, Jack (Richard E Grant as a charismatically engaging loser)

Two unlikeable reprobates, on the wrong side of the law, sharing their booze and their misery.

She, in particular, is the kind of person you try hard to avoid. She’s selfish, abusive, and hostile to any attempt at friendship or empathy (other than to her dying cat). Even her many years as a modestly successful biographer – immersing herself into and channeling the lives of others – was really just a way of escaping herself, her own life.

Even Lee didn’t like being around Lee.

Jack, who bumps into her in a bar (naturally), is more naturally charming: a homeless, ageing, gay libertine with a shady past and no future, still clinging to his fading looks to seduce whoever’s within reach.

This isn’t a feel-good movie. There is no hidden inner core of decency just waiting to be unveiled in a moment of heart-warming redemption. The (brilliantly constructed) movie, based on Ms. Israel’s autobiography is too honest to fall for that Hollywood con.

And perhaps this is what makes it such compelling viewing. There’s an authenticity to it; it pulls no punches, offers no sermonising, arrives at no artificially shaped, life-ennobling moral. It simply leads us into this sordid world of personal dishonesties, and lets us come to our own conclusions. Lee -honestly- feels no regrets for her dishonesty; for having bamboozled collectors (seen as a generally shifty bunch of underhand wheeler-dealers anyway). And she’s never anything but honest in owning up to her dishonesty…to pay for her crime.

In its own idiosyncratic way, this honesty about her dishonesty opens up the pathway to the discovery of her authentic voice. Instead of hiding herself in the lives of others, she finally finds her own life one worth living and writing about. In a sense, crime does pay.

Both actors are riveting. Both are deserving of their Oscar nominations. (It’s impossible to imagine the roles in any other hands. Apparently Julianne Moore was initially considered for the lead role. Terrible thought. ). And they both deliver such fully convincing portraits that it’s impossible not to be hooked…not to be one with the director (Marielle Heller in her first major movie) and fall in love with her subjects, disreputable though they may be.

Heller’s movie is as brilliant a piece of portrait ‘painting’ as any Rembrandt. The portrait may be of two sad, depressing people. It’s far from a sad, depressing portrait.

Such a miss on the part of the Oscar’s that this heralded movie was not nominated for Best Movie


CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? DIR: Marielle Heller. Writer: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty. With: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E Grant (Logan, Jackie), Jane Curtin (The Spy Who Dumped Me). Cinematographer: Brandon Trost (Bad Neighbours)




GREEN BOOK****Hits the right notes

THIS MARVELLOUS MOVIE deftly pulls off an incredible sleight of hand. This is thanks to some superb writing by Peter Farrelly (who also directed) and Brian Currie (from a memoir by Nick Vallelonga) and the tremendous chemistry between Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. The (reality based) story set in the early 60’s, pairs Tony Vallelonga aka TonyLip, a casually racist Italian bruiser (Mortensen) with Dr. Don Shirley, a fastidious Black pianist (Ali). Tony has been employed by Dr. Shirley’s record company to chauffeur him around (and protect him) as he and his trio meander down into the segregationist South performing to sell out and increasingly racist audiences. The Green Book refers to the guide to the hotels Black people were allowed to stay in.

This is buddy movie heaven. Two opposites thrown together to snipe at each other and eventually bring out the best of each other, in a typical opposites-attract Hollywood bromance.

It shouldn’t work. We can guess at the arc of the story from the very beginning (slyly at the Copacabana where bouncer Tony beats up a drunk while the resident MC/crooner belts out “That Old Black Magic”. Get it?). We know somehow Shirley’s erudition will help smooth Tony’s (very) rough edges. We know his music will sooth Tony’s savage beast; and we know Tony’s community rootedness will reintegrate Shirley into his own community.

The movie transforms these clichéd tropes into something quite surprisingly up-lifting. It works because at the thematic level, it’s a nuanced exploration of racial identity and belonging, largely seen through the eyes of the two protagonists. Tony boasts that he’s lived in and belongs to the same neighbourhood that his parents and their parents lived in. He’s almost the clichéd Italian-American: the spaghetti eating, family-loving, wise-guy hobnobbing, Italian-speaking expression of his community. He has no doubt whatsoever of his sense of self; his identity.

Shirley is the opposite. He has no community. He belongs nowhere. He’s a haunted, depressed, highly controlled, lonely man who doesn’t identify Black. And can’t identify White. In one telling scene, he sits at the back of his limo, nattily dressed in his perfectly fitting suit and looks out with a mix of puzzlement and perhaps shame at the poor, ill-shod, Black cotton pickers in the fields across the way. They regard him with curiosity and contempt as if he’s some alien being. Here’s the brilliant musician unfamiliar with the Black music of his time (Little Richard, Aretha Franklyn etc).

He’s not even straight.

Unlike Tony, there’s no community in which Shirley can possibly fit. Even the music he so brilliantly plays (a sort of high class jazz) isn’t the music he’d rather play: Handel and Liszt better suite his temperament and creative spirit (But who wants to hear that?).

Identity is belonging. Without it, you’re little more than a nowhere man.

Beyond this intellectual dimension, the two characters – in no small part due to the superb performances of Mahershala Ali, and especially the weight-gained Viggo Mortensen – come across as engagingly real. Their bond feels like the genuine thing, not an artificial construct. Tony is a quick-tempered thug. But he’s also a loving husband and father; an essentially decent and open-minded person. We witness his early racism slip away the more he sees beyond the race to the person. This in direct contrast with Shirley’s White Southern audiences, who only ever see a Black entertainer. The classical pianist tolerated as an exotic circus performer.

Shirley meanwhile, firmly locked in the castle of his skin, hides his loneliness and frailty beneath a mask of patronising hauteur, crisp diction and Scotch.

The arc of the narrative traces his inner journey as he slowly discovers his own racial identity, and, through Tony, an embryonic sense of belonging.

There are some scenes that border on the corny (He’s reluctantly introduced to KFC by Tony; and then re-introduced to fried chicken by one of his Southern White hosts who deems it appropriately ethnic. Shirley is disdainful of this kind of racist type casting; but to Tony, food is culture. Be proud)

The movie is funny, insightful and often, without schmaltz, quite heart tugging. It’s been accused of over-simplifying the complex issue of US race relations (and indeed, it would be interesting to imagine the same story directed by a Black director). But its central focus -retain your dignity; never resort to violence- offers the refreshing perspective of race relations seen not through the perspective of politics but through that of art’s intimate, healing touch.

The result is something that’s magical and never maudlin. It’s a tough balancing act, sensitively finessed by director Farrelly, whose past successes (The Three Stooges, There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber) were less, let’s say, nuanced.


GREEN BOOK. Dir/Written: Peter Farrelly. Co-Writer: Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga. With: Viggo Mortensen, Maherslhala Ali, Linda Cardellini (Avengers, Age of Ultron). Cinematographer: Sean Porter (Green Room), Production Designer: Tim Galvin (The Butler), Composer: Kris BowersDear White People; TV)







IT SEEMS a new category has slipped into the Oscars: best prosthetics-added portrayal of a fat personage. Gary Oldman successfully did it last year as Churchill, portrayed as a rough on the outside, tender on the inside, diversity-loving quasi liberal. This year, we have John C Reilly as jolly Olive Hardy; and now, Christian Bale as the Dark Lord, Dick Cheney. Bale is the winner! And a very definite potential statuette lifter.

Vice is a serio-docu-comedy. It certainly tries hard to be all three, and ends up being none of them. It’s an entertaining (because the Devil is always more fun than God), and entirely drama-free skim through of the life of an odious person. The story, apart from a few flashbacks here and there, begins with a young, dissolute and loutish Cheney and ends with the Darth Vader that we all know, still claiming to be doing his darnedness to keep America safe (Where have we heard that recently?). According to writer/director Adam McKay (The Big Short, Anchorman 2), the power behind him and the catalyst of his lust for power at any cost was his wife, Lynn, played with steely conviction by Amy Adams.

The story offers us a whistle stop tour of American policy circa 1965-2006. Here are Nixon/Kissinger secretly plotting to bomb Cambodia (with a young Cheney interned to Rumsfeld); Bush Sr. pops up briefly; and then good old boy, Bush Jr. is ushered in to yield power and authority to Cheney (and inadvertently usher in an Imperial presidency). Cheney finds a way around congressional oversight to run things once the election against Al Gore is well and truly stolen. Then 9-11 offers him his big chance to sate the public’s need to bomb somewhere (Al Qaeda was too elusive an enemy), resulting in the Iraqi invasion, along with the torture, the lucrative contracts for Halliburton etc.

And the gangs all there: a befuddled Bush (Sam Rockwell, still befuddled from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri it seems), a hawkish Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell), an outfoxed Powell (Tyler Perry), an invisible Rice (LisaGay Hamilton), a devious John Woo (Paul Yoo as the lawyer that claimed torture was OK since the US didn’t do it) along with Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, David Addington, George Tenet, Antonin Scalia and a seemingly endless rogue’s gallery of White House power brokers.

It was an unpleasant ‘trip down memory lane’ to revisit all those old faces and their vile programs. And Bale’s Cheney, with his sneer and whispered plots, makes him the unquestioned leader of the gang, the bona fide Prince of darkness.

But, despite the bizarre use of a semi-comic choric figure guiding us through the story (Jesse Plemons of America Made), McKay’s noble attempts to introduce the throb of blood, the human drama behind high stakes negotiations and covert maneuvers, the whole enterprise feels curiously bloodless. It’s like a really, really well done, liberal-leaning History Channel bio-pic.

If you didn’t like Cheney before (did anyone?), you’ll really hate him now. But here there’re no new insights, no crazy Oliver Stone conspiracy theories, no never before known stories, no world-view reinterpreted with the passage of time. If one role of art is to help you re-see the world through new eyes, Vice has left me metaphorically blindfolded.

It’ll offer you a fun time wallowing in the past and silently hissing at a pantomime villain. But unless you were asleep from 1965-2006, and thought Kissinger, Cheney et al were lovely honourable men, you won’t find much here to either enrich or modify your world-view.


VICE. Dir./writer: Adam McKay. With: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Eddie Marsan, Jesse Plemons. Cinematographer: Greig Fraser (Rogue One). Production Designer: Patrice Vermette (Gringo)





THIS IS A fascinating, fabulous movie that has the temerity to focus on how the world (or for that, read ‘men’) regard and fear (a) women and, worse (b) powerful women. Oh, and it’s set in the late sixteen century. Plús ca change…

The story centers on those few years when England and Scotland were ruled, oh horror, by two determined queens: Elizabeth 1, a Tudor, (played with great subtlety by Margot Robbie whose career seems to go from strength to strength) and Mary, a Stuart (with Saoirse Ronan once again in a deliciously watchable command performance). French educated Mary, unwanted by the caretaker regent, her half brother (James McArdle), had the added disadvantage of being Catholic in the increasingly Protestant Tudor world. Our first image of her is that of a waterlogged woman washed up on the Scottish shore, like just another European refugee.

The very cleverly written story (by House of Cards writer, Beau Williamson), manages to condense the baroque intricacies of the endless English and Scottish Court intrigues and geopolitical maneuvers, into a few understandable topically relevant broad strokes. Here is England v Scotland, Protestant v Catholic, Tudor v Stuart, the possible legal claim of Stuart monarchical right over the Tudors and the rush to ensure that the right person inherit the throne.

Confused. No matter.

Though in the end, Mary’s and Elizabeth’s preferences for a sisterly power-sharing is undone, the focus of the tale is not one of woman v woman. (Theatre) Director Josie Rourke intercuts from one queen to the other to explore the similarity of the forces that oppose them (Pretty much all the men in their two lives are double-dealing bastards); and, more pointedly, how each woman seeks to deal with these opposing forces.

Both women are seen as inadequate to the task of ruling a country, by dint of their sex. Both the English and Scottish lords regard the ascension of women to the crown as an insult to their masculinities. To them, the Queen really has but one function: to produce an heir.

Elizabeth -ever distrustful of men and disfigured by smallpox – remains, despite her affection for Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), unyieldingly chaste. Mary – ever conscious of her responsibility to the realm – allows herself to be married three times (the first to the French Dauphin, a child who couldn’t, then to a drunk ‘sodomite’ who mainly wouldn’t, but who produced the heir, and finally to a court sanctioned nobleman who rapes her). All these marriages…in the eyes of ‘the Lord’, she must be a strumpet.
Between them, they exemplify the society’s view of the woman: virgin or whore.

The movie is all about these ways of viewing.

Elizabeth understands more acutely than Mary the power of image. She overcomes the bias against her gender by simply denying it. She morphs from the pretty young girl who inherited a realm to a figure claiming to be – in all ways but biological- a man. She finally transcends even this gender allocation. She becomes an icon; an inscrutable white mask…the embodiment of England itself.

Mary, especially with her retinue of French ladies in waiting, never hides her femininity (“I’ll be the woman she is not” she says of Elizabeth). It’s as though she’s daring her Court to accept her for what she is: a sexy woman, and their – steely, determined, unbowed, and uncompromising – Queen. Whereas Elizabeth buried her human side, Mary chooses to manage the delicate balance between being both a woman and being an abstract idea: the Royal personage, the nation. Mainly, she tries oh so hard, to be true to herself…a faithful wife, a forgiving sister (to her double crossing brother), a good mother, a proud Scot, and, uncompromisingly, the queen of England as well..

It’s a failing strategy, especially when the toxic ingredient of religion is thrown into the mix. Her bete noir is the fiery rabble-rousing (read: populist) cleric, John Knox (David Tennant at his enraged, histrionic best) who whips up resentment against this powerful woman who dared to be… a powerful woman.

Saoirse and Margot are of course centre stage in this drama. And they are both magnetically watchable. But there’s a wonderful cast of supporting noblemen, lovers, courtiers, and gentlewomen that jostle for our attention. Director Rourke felt it important to select the best actors available. The result was a Black English ambassador (Adrian Lester, as one of several Black actors) and an Asian Lady (Gemma Chan) in waiting. This indifference to what may be historical accuracy is, as we’ve seen in The Favourite, just another way to drive home the point: the story of history is a portal to the story of today.
Rourke’s symbol laden, semiotic, directorial style is worth noting. Every scene both advances the story and layers meaning upon meaning. We cut for example from a scene with Mary surrounded by her ladies, legs apart under bloodied garments cradling her crying newborn (who will become James I of a unified England and Scotland), to a matching scene with Elizabeth similarly legs apart, opening out to a cascade of blood red roses. To one Queen there’s an heir; to the other, nothing more than silent floral arrangements.

The movie has been criticized for its seemingly cavalier way with historical accuracy. A showdown meeting between the two Queens did not for example actually take place. And the historical record suggests that her third husband, Bothwell (Martin Compston from Line of Duty) was her long time lover.

It doesn’t matter. The spirit of the times is there. It’s what art does: shape a story to illustrate an idea. More importantly the idea that two women would have the temerity to take on the massed lords of their land is the true historical lesson, not the minutiae of recorded incident

Finally, as with anything she’s in, this movie is worth the time and money just for Saoirse Ronan. If she seduces you into the flickering darkness, you’ll be well rewarded.


MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS: Dir: Josie Rourke. Writer: Beau Williamson (from the book by John Gay). With Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Simon Russell Beale, Martin Compston (Line of Duty), Adrian Lester (Undercover), Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians). Cinematographer: John Mathieson (Logan). Production Designer: James Merifield, Costume Designer: Alexandra Byrne (Dr. Strange)



STAN & OLLIE *** Pleasant. Nothing more

THE BIG QUESTION that hovers over this well acted, efficiently directed movie is “why bother”?

It’s a charming tale about love and friendship; and (Stan) Laurel & (Olliver) Hardy are certainly part of comedy history. But there’s nothing here – that’s noteworthy or breakthrough or insightful – to really earn our engagement.

It’s Laurel & Hardy. The movie is big of heart, but that’s really not enough to answer that question

The movie is based on their last few years. At this point (mid nineteen fifties), the comic duo, who had their heyday just before the war, are playing to half empty music halls in England. Why? The suggestion is that a combination of (relatively) poor salaries, multiple alimonies and spendthrift ways have forced them to keep on performing, rerunning old routines to devoted if sparse English audiences. Almost as a sop to their egos, they fool themselves that they’re only in England as a stop-gap measure before filming a Robin Hood story.

But beyond the need for cash, the idea that runs through the movie is their need to keep performing as if somehow this would act as a brake on the flow of time. Ars longa, vita brevis and all that. Their ars will not be longa for long: comedy is evolving and new performers – Norman Winston, Abbot and Costello – are grabbing the headlines. But Stan and Ollie and their audiences seem to live in a bubble where nothing has changed, where time stands still; where only the ghosts of the past – performances, audiences, old grievances – still exist

Except of course time doesn’t stand still. Their bodies are aging. Ollie’s heart, like his knees is weakening. And behind the staged bonhomie, their friendship, still shaken from an event seventeen years before over a money issue (forcing Hardy to appear in a movie without Laurel) is fraying.

The tension between their obvious love for each other and their irritation with each other gives the story the feel of one long drawn out therapy session. Will they recover their lost mutual affection? Will Ollie’s heart and knees survive for one last hurrah?

Do we care?

Both actors – John C Reilly as Hardy and Steve Coogan (Philomena) as Laurel – are superb. Coogan in particular (who fortunately didn’t have the handicap of playing in a fat suit and under tons of prosthetics) channels Stan Laurel stunningly well. Director Jon S. Baird (Filth) manages to avoid schmaltz and conjure up the kind of childlike silliness of their routines with great affection. Perhaps there’s a meta fiction at work here: a nostalgic evocation of a lost time…a fond remembrance of things past in a world less divided.

The idea is as silly as their routines…a piece of froth to enjoy for ninety minutes before getting back to movies that matter


STAN and OLLIE. Dir: Jon S Baird. Writer: Jeff Pope (Philomena). With: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson (Happy Valley), Nina Arianda (Goliath), Rufus Jones (W1A and the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine). Composer: Rolfe Kent (Downsizing). Cinematographer: Laurie Rose (Journeyman)


Colette**** Another Star is Born

ABOVE AND BEYOND its compelling story, there are two great reasons to see this engagingly enjoyable film: a fearless Keira Knightley as the eponymous Colette, who convincingly morphs from ingénue country bumpkin to self-possessed cultural icon. And Dominic West (The Affair) in a barnstorming Oscar-worthy role as her charismatic, bullying, unfaithful, attractive, eloquent, selfish bastard of a husband and mentor and putative lord and master.

They are a dynamite couple; probably one of the most memorable movie couples in many years.

The story is based on the real story of an extraordinary woman: Sidonier-Gabrielle Colette. She was married at a tender age to this much older man, Henri Gauthier-Villars (West) who then whisked her away from the safety of her country home…from her childhood and her past…to sophisticated, decadent Paris. Henri is a Svengali type creative producer with a stable of writers working for him on books, plays etc. under his brand name, Willy. He’s a larger than life salon celebrity whose excesses have bankrupted him.

It is the written reminiscences of his young wife, daydreaming of a past she knew and loved, that come to the rescue. Colette’s early drafts of her youthful daydreams he finds charming but naïve. Henri’s genius lies in the way he reshapes, edits and redirects her writing (to the point of locking her in her room until she’s written enough). The result is the wildly popular best-selling Claudine, a fictional creation based so closely on reality that Gauthier-Villars’ controlling hand even threatens to neutralize the real Colette by the imagined creation.

For a while, Colette is content to be a mere extension of his brand…to live the lies of his serial infidelities and of the carefully curated narrative that a 45 year old Parisian man could have the nous to convincingly write from the perspective of an 18 year old girl. It is a toxic co-dependency.

But truth will out. And soon enough, her dual, interwoven demands for a relationship based on honesty and the need to assert her own identity, to stop playing the part of the adoring wife, raise their head. She demands recognition of her authorship. It’s a demand to be recognized as an individual, to have her stories based on her memories be credited to her. This is paralleled by her need to understand, explore and consummate her own (passionate) sexual identity. (which she does initially with the frustrated American wife – Eleanor Tomlinson from Poldark – of an aging millionaire).

In order to be herself, to be true to herself, she must free herself from Henri, from the constraints of her society, even from Claudine, her creation and alter ego.

And this is what Colette is all about: the idea that we’re socialized into acceptable roles – as mother, wife, heterosexual – that we feel obliged to act out and live up to. But to be true to ourselves (and those around us), we need to be brave enough to free ourselves, no matter the consequences.

It is only once Colette has freed herself from Henri and the world around him that she can allow herself to fall in love (again) on her terms; this time with a cross-dressed woman (Denise Gough) Finally, liberated to be herself, she becomes the author of her own story…beholden to no man, to no narrative of lies.

One notable element of the movie is the brilliance of Andrea Flesch’s costume designs. Like The Favourite, much is made of the clothes people are wearing. At the very beginning, when the young Colette leaves her parent’s cottage to fetch some fruit for her mom, the mom (Fiona Shaw) insists that she change her dress. It’s a simple, ‘girlie’ country frock that she’ll soon shed in the barn where Henri, even then her lover, awaits her. Later in Paris, as a signifier of his ‘ownership’, Henri dresses her to his pleasure, which even includes dressing her as a schoolgirl (as a route to his, increasingly difficult, stimulation). Her emergence as an individual is shown as she changes her sophisticated, if generic, Parisian couture, first to a very stylish fin de siècle modernism and then to a man’s clothes which at the end is dramatically ripped to reveal her breast…the naked truth. She has finally become herself by leaving behind the trappings of how heterosexual society expects her to dress. In a sense her clothes – that proclaim her homosexuality- become true to her.

The movie was directed by Wash Westmoreland who with, now deceased, writer Richard Glatzer (to whom the movie is dedicated) gave us the brilliant Still Alice. It’s one of those really well written movies, cleverly masking very thoughtful explorations of identity and truth with the semblance of ‘everyday’ dialogue.

And it is by far one of the best performances by Knightley


COLETTE. Dir/Writer: Wash Westmoreland. Screenplay: Richard Glatzer. With: Keira Knightley, Fiona Shaw, Dominic West, Denise Gough. Composer: Thomas Adés. Production Designer: Michael Carlin (The Two Faces of January). Costume Designer: Andrea Flesch





THE FAVOURITE***** A Definite Favourite

Finally. What a year this has been for women in the cinema, in movies bad and good, we’ve engaged with Women as women, not appendages. They were strong. In charge. Un-beholden to the men, wherever they were (lost somewhere flexing faux superhero muscles). Powerful. Clever. Sexy. The list goes on. They weren’t the supporting cast, the doting eye candy. These were movies, often written by women, and directed by them, about fundamental issues of power, identity, Independence etc with women at the centre.

And they made money.

Here’s a list of movie feminism circa 2018: Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside…), Saoirse Ronan (as Ladybird and Mary Queen of Scots), Margot Robbie (I, Tonya and Mary, Queen of Scots), Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Annihilation), Gabrielle Union (Breaking In), Sandra Bullock (Oceans Eight, Bird Box), Julia Roberts (Homecoming), Sacha Parkinson (Apostasy), Emma Thompson (The Children Act), Glenn Close (The Wife), Viola Davis (Widows), Carey Mulligan (Wildlife), Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz (Disobedience), Rachel Weisz, again, with Emma Stone and Olivia Coleman (The Favourite), Keira Knightly (Collette), Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins), Yalitza Aparazio (Roma). Even Captain Marvel’s gender has be reassigned.

But I digress.

The Favourite is a delicious, wildly entertaining, hugely satisfying Court romp about power, politics and (devious) ways of persuasion. The story centres on the toxic ménage a trois of Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman), who ruled Britain between 1702 – 1714, her confidant, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) – yes, that Churchill- wife of Lord Marlborough, the Queen’s Captain-General and Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), a disgraced ingenue from the country, with an eye for advancement.

It’s a tale of sex, seduction, cross-dressing, deceit and intrigue.

And it all begins when Abigail is unceremoniously dumped in the mud outside the Queen’s palace. She has come in the hope that cousin Sarah can find her a place in the palace. This cousin Sarah reluctantly does. She’s given the post of scullery maid, beholden to an abusive kitchen hand, one notch above her in the pecking order. Abigail becomes, albeit briefly, the defenceless victim to the exercise of -abusive- power at its most basic.

She’s an attractive young thing, and pretty soon catches the eye of one of the lords of the court. When he barges into her chamber one night, she questions whether he’s there to seduce her or rape her. He answers that he’s a gentleman. So, it’s rape then, she replies.

Thus does director lay out the idea that drives his story: the symbiotic knit of sex and power…the power of position and status to demand sex and the power of sex to achieve position and -favoured- status. At one point in the story, we find ourselves in a bordello. It’s a brilliant, if not too subtle expression of the transactional nature of sex. Open your legs and here’s your reward : a job, an army, a sinecure, a better room, a palace, a position of authority forever.

In other words, the present British aristocracy

At the head of the pecking order is of course the Queen, who, when we meet her, is a depressed, infantilised, petulant woman whose seventeen pregnancies have all failed to bear fruit. She keeps rabbits, one for each departed child. And she is entirely dependent for any emotional succour on Sarah, her counsel, puppet master and lover. Sarah is the cunning conduit between the Prime Minister and the Queen.

England is in a state of war; life and death decisions of the most far-reaching consequence are made through the whispers in dark corridors and silk bed sheets.

Abigail’s arrival quickly upsets this status quo. Her farmer’s know-how about herbs and natural poultices soon endears her to the gout ridden queen (Oh England, thou art sick). And having conveniently fallen asleep on the Royal bed, her lithe naked body quickly endears her to the Queen even more. And thus begins the duel for power between the dark, older Sarah and the fair, younger Abigail. Each is aligned with opposing political power bases: Tory v Whig; hawk v dove. One moment you’re in favour; the next you’re not.

Whisper, whisper.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ directing, along with his wonderful production and Costume designers, Fiona Crombie and Sandie Powell, present us with an absurdist, vulgar, grotesque world. It is as grotesque as the idea of divine, God given, Royal power. It is a world of effete men in their effeminate wigs and powdered, pomaded faces and crack shot women dressed like buccaneers.

The actions unfold on two stages: an indoor stage of dark tapestries and hidden corridors that barely obscure the serial seductions and stealth within; and an outdoors world of violence…birds are slaughtered, a woman is thrown from her horse and pulled for miles, another is chased like prey by her hunter lover.

Indoors or out, you’re either the hunter with power of the hunted without. In this world, there are only winners and losers.

The three principals in this fine romp are outstanding. Olivia Coleman probably had the hardest job: her richly complex character – self indulgent, self pitying, clueless, abusive – still manages to win the audience’s favouritism when we finally realise what she must clearly have know all along, and which we see in her eyes in the closing shot: that she’s being played. Rachel Weisz’ Lady Sarah is steely and cunning, but with an honesty and genuine love for her Queen that is at times almost touching. Not so Emma Stone’s Abigail. We feel for her as she’s knocked about by men and punished by Lady Sarah. We’re seduced by her fearlessness and spunk (and impeccable English accent). And in the end we’re disgusted by her heartlessness. Stone’s brilliance is that she always allows us behind the mask to the nastiness within.

This is of course an “historical drama”. But as if to ensure that viewers don’t relegate it to ‘an event that took place in the past’, the semiotics of the film – the racy dialogue, the (break) dancing, the exaggerated foppiness of the clothes, and even the focus of the story (where the men are largely bystanders) – demand that we view the morale of this tale through the lens of our present winter of discontent.

It’s almost as though Yorgos Lanthimos is suggesting that three hundred years after her death, the nobility who rule are vainglorious fops, and the policies of their government are still shaped by favouritism, cunning whispers, and self seeking power brokers.



THE FAVOURITE. Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster), Writers: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara. With: Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone. Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult. Cinematographer: Robbie Ryan (I, Daniel Blake). Production Designer: Fiona Crombie (Macbeth). Costume Designer: Sandy Powell (Cindarella)