The Favourite a Well-Acted Mess

The Favourite (2018)
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

The three reasons to see this film

I’m an independent cinema fan who intensely dislikes malls, which means that I’m just now catching up on some of the 2018 Oscar contenders on Netflix. In the case of The Favourite, that’s probably just fine, as it didn’t exactly light up the box office.

Olivia Colman won the Best Actress hardware for this one. Did she deserve it? Nope. She was very good, but she wasn’t even in the same league as Glenn Close in The Wife. (I’ll get back to you on Lady Gaga, as I’ve not yet seen A Star is Born.) Colman’s victory, though not a travesty, resulted from one of Hollywood’s most annoying traits: tokenism. Every few years Hollywood takes flak for being out of touch and decides to prove its empathy by dishing out statues to those in the correct checklist box, whether or not they actually deserve them. This time, Hollywood tried to prove it really loves the LGBTQ community. I applaud that, but I’d be more impressed if what we saw wasn’t a repeat of 1994 when Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia: straight actors playing gay.
The Favourite is basically a messy­­–on many levels–power triangle with a lesbian subtext. Colman is cast as Queen Anne, the British monarch who ruled from 1702-14. We meet her as war with France has precipitated a political and economic crisis. Anne is obese, ravaged by gout, is carried about in a sedan chair, and in the thrall of her childhood friend, Sarah Jennings Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. Anne has lost 17 children* and keeps the same number of rabbits in her chamber, where she is little more than a sickly child scarcely capable of wiping her own mouth. Sarah (Rachel Weisz), Anne’s Keeper of the Privy (treasurer), is a political animal who bends Anne to her will by also being her lover. Into the mix comes down-on-her-luck Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin, who secures work as a scullery maid until the herbs she picks eases Anne’s gout, gains her a rise in position, and, eventually, also a place in Anne’s bed. What plays out is a struggle between Sarah and Abigail to see which is more Machiavellian. It’s a classic be-careful-of-what-you-ask-for film.
Colman, Weisz, and Stone are terrific, though you’d be hard-pressed to rationalize why any one of them is the “lead” actress and the other two are in “supporting” roles. When the three of them are engaged in palace intrigue, The Favourite is conspiratorial, acidic, and steamy. As for being entertaining, that probably depends upon your grasp of 18th century English history. I mean this literally. Unless you know that the war against France is the War of Spanish Succession, and are versed in the struggles between Hapsburgs and Bourbons, the haplessness of the Stuart monarchy, and Parliamentary factionalism between Tories and Whigs, you’ll probably be left in the dark as to who is stabling whom in the back at any given moment. This means that secondary characters such as Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), the 1st Earl of Godolphin (James Smith), the 1st Baron Marsham (Joe Alwyn), or even Sarah’s husband, the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatis) are little more than male peacocks in silly wigs and sillier clothing battling over pecking order.  
Beware any film tagged as “loosely based” on real people or events. There is very little in The Favourite that passes historical muster. Screenplay writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara claim to have researched carefully. What they have not said is that Anne’s lesbianism was a smear job concocted by Sarah Churchill as revenge for having been dismissed from Court. Or that, by most accounts, Anne was devoted to her Danish-born husband, Prince George–who does not appear in the movie, though he lived until 1708–and that severe illness during the last decade of her life (1665-1714) rendered any love affair, marital or extramarital, exceedingly unlikely.
Historians generally interpret Anne’s whispered lesbianism within a context in which Sarah Churchill promoted the Tories, whereas her cousin Abigail courted the Whigs. Filmmakers, of course, have artistic license, but it’s hard to get past the idea that The Favourite is, like its secondary characters, just an excuse to play dress up and mask contemporary issues behind miles of crinoline. Were it not for strong performances from Colman, Weisz, and Stone, The Favourite would the biggest mess of “loosely based” historical comedy/drama since Sofia Coppola’s inept Marie Antoinette (2006).
Rob Weir
*If anyone cares, Anne actually had 18 pregnancies.


Third Hotel is Unusual and Enigmatic

The Third Hotel  (2018)
By Laura Van Der Berg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 209 pages.
★★★ ½

I generally don't pay too much attention to publisher PR, but whoever called The Third Hotel a "shape-shifting novel," nailed it. Early in the book our principal character and unreliable narrator Clare tells us, "I am experiencing a dislocation of reality." So you will the reader and, maybe that's as it should be.

Clare has a reason to feel dislocated; her husband Richard–a film studies professor specializing in horror films–has been struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver, but maybe that's not all that has knocked her out of sorts. Clare was an odd duck even before Richard's death. She's a sales rep for Thyssen-Krupp elevators and spent more time in the air and on the road than in the couple's home near Albany. When we hear Clare tell us that the first thing she does when she reaches still another hotel is turn off the TV, the lights, the air conditioner, and anything else making noise and sit naked in her room, we suspect that perhaps all the sky miles have taken their toll on her sanity.

Just before he died, Richard had been invited to be part of a conference panel on new Latin American cinema in Havana, as one of his research subjects, Yuniel Mata, was debuting his new film RevoluciĆ³n Zombi. Clare impulsively decides to attend the conference, carrying with her a box that belonged to Richard that she fears to open. Things get strange before she touches down, when she meets Arlo, who says he's a documentary filmmaker. But maybe he's a fraud. Or a leech. Or a pursuer. But that's not half as odd as when she spies Richard standing outside of the Museum of the Revolution. So what do we have here? An imposter? A ghost story? Is Richard a life-imitates-art zombie? What do we make of other odd occurrences such as a train derailment, a missing actress, surreal hotels, and encounters of the weird kind? By the time Clare hears Mata speak of new kinds of reality that distress us like eels under the skin, Clare already has a few wiggling beneath her epidermis.

The story unfolds in the present and in flashbacks. Is this a book in which all the characters are dead and don't know it? Or is Clare crazier than a March hare–perhaps a victim of paternal sexual abuse or violence at the hands of an old boyfriend? We certainly learn that her grief over Richard's death seems out of sorts from what she recalls of their marriage, but as I said, she's an unreliable narrator.

Then again, maybe it is a kind of zombie novel. Van der Berg blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, paranormal and temporal, invention and the authentic self, and grief and memory. As you can surmise, this is an unusual novel. It is probably the case that Van Der Berg is also an unreliable narrator who wants to induce Clare-like turmoil underneath our skins. All I can tell you for certain is that Ms. Van Der Berg is a very fine writer whose sentences sometimes feel like elegant philosophic rumination. She is, however, sometimes too oblique for her own good. I suspect she wanted readers to engage in independent intellectual speculation. If that's the case, it was a risky gambit as some readers are likely to want more resolution than she offers. I'm willing to cut her some slack as it's a short book and a bit of ambiguity seldom harms. The Third Hotel does, however, have the earmarks of a book written to impress other writers more than please a general readership. I recommend it, but whether it will satisfy depends entirely upon your own capacity for the ambiguous. I liken it in tone to the movie Pan's Labyrinth in that it's not entirely clear if the surfaces are meant to be taken literally or as parables.

Rob Weir



Milkman Teaches about the Troubles but Doesn't Always Deliver

Milkman (2018)
By Anna Burns
Faber and Faber, 368 pages.

Back in 1996, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes was all the rage. It is a fine book, though a bleak one. It's so grim that when she finished it, my wife hurled it across the room and exclaimed, "Thank God I'm not Irish!"

I'm of Scottish extraction, so I'm in no position to judge anyone else's forlorn past. I relate this anecdote because when it comes to gloominess there are decided parallels between McCourt's memoir and Anna Burns' Man Booker Prize-wining novel Milkman, which is set in Northern Ireland during the "Troubles" of the 1970s. Officially some 3,500 soldiers and civilians died during a British occupation of Northern Ireland that badly mediated conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Untold numbers simply disappeared and were likely victims of terrorist groups such as the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defense League. This means that Milkman is not the sort of book likely to be delivered to everyone's reading stands.

As Burns makes clear, it was a time of tragedy, paranoia, and despair. She details a bifurcated world of "renouncers" and "informers," shorthand for Catholic nationalists who were members of or sympathetic to the IRA, and those who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of Great Britain rather than merge with the Republic of Ireland*. Burns introduces us to some of the code phrases from the conflict: "Over the water" is a pejorative term for England (or the United States), "over the Border" is a stand-in for the Irish Republic, and "over the road" means Protestant neighborhoods where a Catholic would not wish to venture.

Milkman is narrated–if that is the right term–by an unnamed 18-year-old Catholic woman who lives is an unnamed neighborhood in an unnamed city, though we can safely infer the locale is Belfast, as this from whence Ms Burns hails. None of the major characters have names and are mostly referenced by their roles, quirks, and status: nuclear boy, tablet girl, maybe boyfriend, beyond the pale, and so on. Early in the book our narrator recites a litany of first names that instantly label individuals as Irish, English, Catholic, or Protestant and that's all we need to know. Burns wishes to immerse us in the politics and psychology of the Troubles and presumably thought that proper names would divert attention to personalities. It also serves her purpose of showing how growing up in such an environment damaged psyches and (in a metaphorical sense) obliterated personalities; humans were pawns in a bloody game they had to play whether or not they desired to do so.

This is certainly the case of the narrator. She is fatherless, one of her brothers was murdered, her mother thinks she's headed for damnation, she is often called upon to take care of her "wee sisters," and she's routinely berated by her older sisters and (surviving) brothers-in-law. Like many 18-year-olds, her identity is a work in progress and she indentifies as neither religious nor political. Good luck with that. She has already called attention to herself for a dangerous habit: reading 19th century novels while walking! In the eyes of the community, she could be an informer passing secrets to British troops–perhaps through the book titles. After all, many of those books are English. What else would explain the fact that she's 18 and unmarried? She does have a "maybe boyfriend," but he too has called the wrong kind of attention to himself. He's a gear-head who collects auto parts, one of which the community learns is from a Bentley (British). Rumor has it that there's a Union Jack label on it. Could things get any worse? They do when a mysterious figure known as Milkman–reportedly a 41-year-old married IRA bigwig–begins to stalk her. The community begins to whisper that the two are lovers. (He's so shadowy that some confuse him with the actual milkman!)

We feel the weight of the world on our narrator, though I am at a loss to explain how this book won the Man Booker Prize. Here's another reason why many will shy away from Milkman: it is written in stream of consciousness style. This certainly helps get inside the mind of a confused 18-year-old, but it is a notoriously difficult form to master. At her best, Burns illumines how a young woman trapped in a world of suspicion, innuendo, and crippling social norms rockets from anger to resignation to misanthropy in the blink of an eye. There is, however, no disguising the fact that Milkman is also often a frustrating and tedious read. Stream of consciousness writing often impresses other novelists far more than it enthralls readers. Milkman also suffers from a jarring tonal shift in the last quarter or so–an attempt to interject humor and in the process humanize the narrator's tyrannical mother.

Should you give Milkman a try? That depends upon what your purpose for reading might be. You can learn a lot about gender expectations in the 1970s, what it means to live in a warzone, and how causes are driven by inflamed passion rather than cool reason. If you read carefully, you can infer a lot about the Troubles. If, however, you like clarity, distinct characters, and at least a ray or two of hope, you might be tempted to hurl Milkman across the room. Or across the water.

Rob Weir

*Northern Ireland is riven by religion and economics. 48% of its residents are Protestant and 45% are Catholic. Britain, however, is far more prosperous than the Irish Republic, hence pragmatic materialism motivates many Northern Irish residents to prefer the status quo over nationalist dreams or religious sectarianism.