The Favourite

Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Writers: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara

Here in the UK, we love costume dramas. From the sweeping romance of Pride and Prejudice to the majestic grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia to the picturesque elegance of A Room with a View to the refined theatricality of Olivier’s Henry V, historical period dramas have long been a staple of British cinema and television. They remain as popular as ever with such recent hits as Downton Abbey, Peaky Blinders and Poldark finding tremendous success on the small screen. Audiences continue to be drawn in by these films and programmes for the resplendent sets and lavish costumes, the melodramatic stories and illustrious characters, and also for their nostalgic idealisation of the past. I bring this up because Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite breaks just about every convention a costume drama is supposed to follow. The film doesn’t look beautiful or vibrant; it looks murky and ugly. The characters aren’t noble and graceful; they’re nasty and unseemly. And the story definitely isn’t romantic or nostalgic; it’s surreal, tragic and completely contemporary. The Favourite is everything that a costume drama isn’t supposed to be and it is one of the best films of 2018.

The film is set in 18th century England during the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), the last of the Stuarts and one of Britain’s lesser-known monarchs. The country is at war with France but the ruler leading them isn’t the exemplar of strength and wisdom that a queen is supposed to be, she is an overgrown child plagued by gout and depression. As her courtiers exasperatingly compete for her attention, it becomes clear that the only person who has the queen’s ear is her favourite Lady Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Sarah is cunning, ruthless and steadfastly loyal and dedicated to her queen (and lover) to the point that she refuses to indulge her with flattery or delusion. Anne appears in one scene having made herself up for an important meeting and Lady Sarah tells her bluntly and tactlessly that the make up makes her look like a badger. For the most part Queen Anne has no contact with the outside world which means that her decisions, and in turn the fate of the thousands of people under her domain, are determined by whims which depend largely on whoever is allowed to speak to her and who she happens to feel partial towards. As the arbiter of who is and isn’t allowed to speak to the Queen, Lady Sarah is basically the country’s de facto ruler and she uses her influence to ensure that the war against France as led by her husband John Churchill (Mark Gatiss) is allowed to continue.

Following the example set by Nigel Hawthorne in The Madness of King George (who in real life wouldn’t rule for another half century), Colman deliver a tour-de-force performance as an outrageously erratic ruler, playing her as both a subject of hilarious ridicule and heartbreaking pathos. We get the sense that Anne doesn’t have any real understanding of the affairs of the state and tends to be rather petulant when called upon to actually fulfil her duties to the crown: “It’s my state” she declares when Lady Sarah’s attentions are drawn to matters of national concern, “I am the business of state!” She is both the most and the least essential person in her own government; she is completely irrelevant when it comes to understanding and resolving the country’s many problems yet the fates of every man, woman and child who will be affected by these policies are entirely in her hands. It is when she is at her most insecure that she feels compelled to assert her status and this can happen at the most random times, such as in her response to Lady Sarah’s dismissal of her badger-like make up where she orders a passing page to look at her only to hysterically rebuke him for doing so. Yet, for all her power and malice, Anne is ultimately a wretched, pitiable figure; one who is trapped in a role she never chose and is grieving the loss of 17 children.

Yet the film isn’t just interested in exploring the warped emotional psyche of a queen who is apt to eat cake until she vomits, but also in the ways her subjects try to indulge, please and control their ruler. Winning the war against France depends on more than raising taxes, securing resources and planning strategies, it also depends on befriending the 17 rabbits that the Queen keeps as surrogates for her children. This is the political landscape that Abigail (Emma Stone), Lady Sarah’s distant cousin, enters as she stumbles off her carriage and falls face first into the mud. A scullery maid whose own father gambled her away, Abigail seeks out her cousin in search of employment and finds it in the palace kitchens, but what she really wants above all else is to escape her poverty and ascend to the status she has always desired. Thus she sets her sights on the Queen and worms her way into Anne’s confidence (and bed) by offering her comfort and honey where Lady Sarah would only offer harshness and bile. This isn’t to say that Abigail is kind and earnest where Lady Sarah is cruel and unfeeling though, far from it. Abigail soon proves that she has the same knack for deceit, guile and malice as her cousin, but that she can mask it all with the artifice of a pretty face and large, bright, blue eyes.

In a sense The Favourite is less about Queen Anne than it about the competition between Abigail and Lady Sarah to win her affection and their bitter rivalry is as deliciously vicious as anything in All About Eve or Dangerous Liaisons. Much of this is about power and there is a clear difference between what the two women vie for with their ambitions; Lady Sarah has a cause she is trying to serve (or claims to anyway) for the betterment of her Queen, country and people whereas Abigail is looking out only for herself and cares not who she has to destroy to secure her status. Love comes into it as well as one mistress loves her Queen in the way she wants to be loved whilst the other loves her in the way she feels she needs to be loved. In this triumvirate’s love triangle the film presents the Queen with a choice between the comfort and sweetness of flattery and compliance or the surety and authenticity of candour and tough love, neither of which will give her the unconditional, pure, childlike adoration that she has always craved. The film is brutal in its depiction of how lonely these characters all are in their own ways and allows us to appreciate that feeling all the more by filming the scenes through a fish-eye lens, which has the effect of enhancing the inhospitable voids that overwhelm the spaces that these small characters occupy.

The fish-eye lens also has the effect of wildly distorting the shape of the world in bizarre, dream-like ways which is quite fitting for a film as intense and surreal as this. Disproportionately wide views of the rooms and their warped corners don’t just emphasise the vast gulf of space that they contain, the walls look severe and imposing as if they’re confining these characters and threatening to close further and further in until you cannot breathe from the suffocation. The disconnection from the outside world feels all the more clear-cut and there is a definite sense that all of these characters are prisoners of their stations and circumstances and are living a never-ending claustrophobic nightmare. The film feels bizarre and unreal in the way that The Draughtsman’s Contract does and it feels cheekily modern in the way that Love & Friendship does. There is something wonderfully 21st century about the way that the three central women are all pared down, complex and sympathetic figures, even when they’re being funny, while the men who surround them are all flamboyantly decorated caricatures. The brilliance of The Favourite is that it employs its strange and anachronistic tone to better let us appreciate the abject, agonising humanity of its three fascinating and impeccably portrayed leading ladies.



La La Land

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt

Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Damien Chazelle

There’s a reason why La La Land is being regarded as a return for the movie musical, even though musicals have never really left the movies. La La Land was made in the vein of the classic Hollywood musical, which has its own distinctive look and style unlike the musicals of recent years. These are the films which first showed how some thoughts and feelings are too powerful and overwhelming to be conveyed in mere words and expressions, they need to be expressed in song and dance. Recent musicals like Les Misérables and Moulin Rouge! have kept the tradition alive but have tended to place more focus on songs that advance the plot, thus robbing us of the pure expression of music and movement that made the classics so wonderful. The scores and choreography in such movies as Swing Time, Singin’ in the Rain, and West Side Story were just as essential as the lyrics (if not more so) in making this genre the Hollywood landmark that it is. Chazelle has sought to recapture that spectacle with La La Land.

The story follows Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress trying to make it in show business, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz pianist trying to keep the music alive. Both live in LA, a city of dreamers and believers all looking for their big breaks. The first time they encounter each other, Mia overhears Sebastian improvising a romantic piece on the piano, which gets him fired from his restaurant job, leading him to brush off Mia when she attempts to talk to him. They meet again months later at a party where they spend the night expressing their disdain for each other despite the clear attraction between them. In typical Hollywood fashion, the two get together and fall in love. In the months that follow the two share their dreams and wishes with one another and try to help each other achieve them. After a series of failed auditions Sebastian encourages Mia to write a one-act play telling her story so that she might get herself noticed while she encourages him to join a band led his former classmate Keith (John Legend) in order to advance his career and earn a steady income. As the two work to make their dreams come true, the struggles and disappointments they encounter threaten to drive them apart.

When a film is universally lauded the way La La Land was, there’s always a chance that audience’s expectations will be skewed, which is probably what motivated some of the backlash from viewers who felt that the movie did not live up to the hype. Speaking for myself, I don’t think La La Land is the best movie of the year but I do think it is a wonderful, thoroughly enjoyable film that too many people have unfairly criticised (for the most part). For musical spectacle alone, this movie deserves to be celebrated. Chazelle brings such energy and creativity to the musical sequences, favouring prolonged, wide, sweeping shots that allows us to see the beautiful sets and superb choreography in full form. The film makes exquisite use of colour with its lighting, costumes and production design and has such a magical feel to it I couldn’t help but feel awestruck throughout. Whether the leading couple were dancing in the light of a beautiful sunset or amongst the stars, I was enchanted.

One crucial element that made the classic Hollywood musicals so successful was the magnetic attraction of such stars as Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and Audrey Hepburn, and both Gosling and Stone have that star power. He is cool and smooth and she is witty and glamorous. That neither of them is a particularly great singer or dancer doesn’t matter. I suspect that Chazelle wanted to prioritise sincerity over polish and here it really works. The singing doesn’t always have to be pitch perfect or the dancing flawless if the performances and chemistry are strong enough and here the two stars more than deliver. Towards the end when Stone sings her audition song, she doesn’t hit every note but her performance is so heartfelt and vulnerable in that moment that I was mesmerised all the same.

There are some issues I could pick at if I really wanted to, but they would be little more than nit-picks. One criticism that comes up quite often is how the film is essentially a self-indulgent portrait of Hollywood, a movie revelling in its own glamour that doesn’t stand on its own two feet the way the movies it pays tribute to do. I disagree. There are certainly plenty of homages towards the movies of classic Hollywood throughout but it still manages to do its own unique thing without directly imitating them. I never saw this film as a celebration of itself but as a celebration of the movies and the joy and wonder they can inspire. It’s too early to tell whether the film will be remembered as a classic or whether it really does mark a return for the Hollywood musical, but I for one think it’s marvellous. The look of the film is stunning, the music is delightful and the magic of it all is entrancing. When everything came to a head in a magnificent climax that gave movies like An American in Paris and The Red Shoes a run for their money, I was spellbound.


Irrational Man

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley

Director: Woody Allen

Writer: Woody Allen

Woody Allen is to screenwriting what John Williams is to music or Meryl Streep is to acting; at this point he can write an Oscar-worthy screenplay in his sleep. Even if the film he makes isn’t as great or as groundbreaking as Annie Hall, Manhattan or Midnight in Paris, more often than not there will be something in it that’s worthwhile to watch. At his best Allen can offer a film that is intelligent without being pretentious, casual without being dull, and hilarious without being silly. He is very good at offering stories with original yet simple concepts and at discussing complex themes and ideas in a smart yet accessible way. Even after four decades of writing and directing great and innovative films, he is still able to find new and interesting stories to tell. His latest offering Irrational Man is not one of his best but that doesn’t mean there isn’t much to enjoy or to get drawn into. Even when he’s being generic Allen is still able to craft a smart and enjoyable film that is well worth watching.

The story of Irrational Man is told from the perspectives of Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), a tortured philosophy professor whose turbulent life and radically pessimistic ideas have rendered him without any sense of purpose or motivation in life, and Jill (Emma Stone), an eager philosophy student who is drawn and attracted to Abe’s brilliant mind and tormented psyche. They form a bond with each other that appeals to both Abe’s bleak search for meaning and to Jill’s romanticised desires. Their escapades eventually lead them to a chance encounter that invigorates a new sense of purpose into Abe’s life. He is suddenly presented with an objective that awakens a long-forgotten sense of passion and enthusiasm; it is a purpose that is in and of itself both misguided and depraved (and yes, irrational as well) but which he nevertheless pursues with a newfound sense of fulfilment.

The film for the most part is typical Woody Allen. The characters often engage each other in debates on philosophy but do so in ways that don’t feel dull or ostentatious. Allen has never been one for self-indulgence; he merely depicts clever characters who discuss intellectual topics in ways that feels nonchalant and natural. Irrational Man is no different. The film also contains that Woody Allen quirkiness that allows him to depict a story with quite a twisted concept in a laidback and comedic way. Phoenix has pretty much made his name playing eccentric and unstable characters and so Abe naturally fits him like a glove. He is able to play the character in the erratic and unhinged manner that he knows how to do well and the chemistry he shares with Stone feels authentic and sincere. Stone for her part does well playing a capable yet credulous student whose romanticised inclinations are just as misguided as Abe’s resolute purpose.

However, as much as I enjoyed this film, I still don’t think it rates as one of Allen’s best. There are parts when I felt the dialogue was too on-the-nose and I felt that narrations of both of the main characters were for the most part unnecessary. Allen’s greatest strength is usually his dialogue but oftentimes he can be accused of taking it too far by stating things that simply don’t need to be stated (or at least don’t need to be stated directly). I was also somewhat off-put by Parker Poesy’s character Rita, who I felt was out of place in this story. I wasn’t sure what point her character was meant to serve and her inclusion felt more like an afterthought to me. I do think that Posey played the character just fine, I just don’t think her presence really brought anything to the story. Jamie Blackley at least has a clear role to serve as Roy, Jill’s all-round decent boyfriend who becomes jealous and even hurt by her growing attachment to Abe. His role doesn’t amount to much more than that, but at least its something.

This film may for the most part be a generic Woody Allen film, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Allen remains one of the most gifted and intelligent screenwriters in Hollywood and so even a generic screenplay by him is going to be worthy of praise. Irrational Man offers a lot for the audience to enjoy from interesting characters to an offbeat story to intelligent and absorbing dialogue. The way that Allen is able to portray the story of a deeply disturbed man who embarks on a perverse journey in a way that comes across as reserved and quirky shows that he has still indeed got it and is in no danger of becoming inapt or irrelevant anytime soon. Irrational Man is smart, funny and engaging and is a fine addition to Woody Allen’s considerable body of work.


Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts

Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Writers: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo

Often when an actor is cast to play an iconic character such as a superhero, it is very difficult for that actor to break away from the role. This is something that Mark Hamill learned when his post-Star Wars career found little success due to his identity being so strongly linked to that of Luke Skywalker. Similarly Bela Lugosi gave such a stellar performance as Dracula that he was forever typecast and cursed to live out the rest of his career playing minor parts in lesser horror films. Michael Keaton suffered the same fate when he left the role of Batman behind in 1992 only for his career to be met with modest success afterwards, an experience that doubtless provided him with a valuable insight into the tortured unhinged psyche of washed-up Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson.

Riggan, a role that surely must have been written specially for Keaton, is a former movie star whose career peaked decades earlier when he played the iconic superhero Birdman. Having experienced little success in the years since he left the role behind, he makes a last-ditch effort to save himself from irrelevance, obscurity and mediocrity by writing, directing and starring in a theatrical adaptation of Ray Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. This proves to be a tortuous ordeal as he pours everything he has into this production and is faced with family issues, difficult actors, a disdainful critic, and his own deranged mind. His thoughts are constantly at war with one another as he battles with the abusive voice of his alter ego Birdman and his grip on reality loosens as he imagines himself to be a super-heroic figure, performing feats of levitation and telekinesis. Riggan undergoes a psychological breakdown and a lamenting downfall befitting a hero of a Shakespearean tragedy, an appropriate comparison given the inclusion of Macbeth’s soliloquy later on in the film.

Keaton delivers the performance of his career as he impeccably portrays the fanatical personality of Riggan Thomson complete with the erratic mood swings, the conflicting personalities and the desperation of a man at the end of his tether. Riggan finds himself in a despairing state as his ego is constantly undermined by antagonistic forces. There is the abrasive actor whose undercutting criticisms challenge Riggan’s creative vision. There is also the pompous New York Times critic who resents Riggan for his impudence and ignorance. Most demoralising of all is the cruel voice of Birdman whose abuse constantly puts Riggan down and who insists that he is out of his depth and must return to the glory days of Birdman. So extreme is this inner turmoil that the lines between Riggan and Birdman become blurred and one starts to wonder whether the two are even interchangeable.

Iñárritu’s direction complements Riggan’s rapid and irrational mentality as he shoots and edits the film to look like one continuous take, crammed with paranoid shakes of the camera and schizophrenic close-ups. The camera moves haphazardly from room to room and follows character after character as hours or even entire days fly by in a single motion. This is a film that never stops moving and that never allows the audience to feel comfortable. The chaotic and frenzied tone that Iñárritu conveys deftly hides the fact that every scene must have had to be precisely timed and rigorously choreographed in order for them to be properly captured. The inclusion of an original score played mostly on the drums also adds to the hectic tone.

Although Birdman is very much Keaton’s film the supporting cast is also worthy of praise, particularly Edward Norton and Emma Stone (who, perhaps not coincidentally, are also famous for starring in superhero films). Norton plays the brilliant but unstable and hot-blooded method actor Mike who constantly challenges Riggan as a writer, director and actor, and who actively insists on drinking real gin and on being threatened by a more realistic looking gun while on stage in order for the act to “feel real”. Stone plays Riggan’s daughter Sam, a recovering drug addict who resents her father, despite not quite knowing why, and who lashes out because of him. Both actors portray their characters with great intensity and fury while also allowing some humanity to balance out the absurdity. The cast also includes Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s best friend and producer trying to stop everything from falling apart, Naomi Watts as an aspiring actress finally getting her big break on Broadway, Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s discontented girlfriend, Lindsay Duncan as the critic who has set out to destroy Riggan, and Amy Ryan as Riggan’s ex-wife who perhaps knows him better than he knows himself.

Birdman is a challenging film that raises many questions. How much of what happens takes place in Riggan’s head and how much of it is real? Are Riggan and Birdman separate personalities or are they one and the same? What happens at the end and what does it mean? These questions are never given any explicit answers and perhaps they aren’t supposed to. After all it isn’t called The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance for nothing. Half of the fun is in not knowing. Regardless, Birdman is an immensely creative and compelling film that invites the viewer to not just watch, but rather to experience a story. It is a unique and unusual film that can understandably be daunting or even frustrating for anyone more preferential towards films with traditional narrative structures. Having only seen it once I cannot claim to have completely figured this film out and maybe I never will. However I can claim to have been exceedingly fascinated, mentally stimulated, and thoroughly entertained by this film and I look forward to the prospect of watching it again.