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Reviews

The Favourite: Sensationalism at the Expense of History

The beautiful cinematography and wonderful acting in this over-the-top period piece barely makes up for its historical inaccuracy and a grueling 2-hour run time.

Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite is artistically filmed, the acting is wonderful, and cinematography top notch. If you’re looking for a realistic account of Queen Anne’s 18th Century British court, however, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The Favourite chooses to enshrine gossip and rumor as historic fact, while delivering a film that is as tedious as it is tantalizing.

As the film opens, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is deciding whether to continue a war with France after an English victory, or sue for peace. Her natural inclination, and that of opposition leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), is for peace, but her influential friend and Keeper of the Privy Purse Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), wife of Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), wants to prosecute the war to the bitter end. During negotiations, a dirty but charming Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives seeking employment in Lady Sarah’s household.

Things get complicated when Abigail discovers Queen Anne and Lady Sarah’s dirty little secret, and uses it to her advantage to get closer to the Queen. Abigail and Lady Sarah engage in a private war for the Queen’s affection, while Robert Harley and Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) conspire to use Abigail to get closer to the Queen, wh0 only has time for one friend, I guess. Who will become the Queen’s favourite?

Using extreme wide-angles (shot with Panavision lenses) to achieve a sense of expanse even in a small room, the filmmakers capture a delightfully Baroque portrayal of an outlandish and amoral British aristocracy. The acting is top-notch, with Emma Stone giving one of the best performances of her career. Olivia Colman should receive an Oscar nod for her portrayal of Queen Anne. The film, however, could’ve been improved by cutting at least 20 minutes of silence, screeching violins, and arthouse chapter titles.

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Commentary

How Diverse was Queen Elizabeth’s Court?

The new film Mary Queen of Scots employs black and Asian actors and actresses to play white roles, while missing an opportunity to show England’s historic 16th Century diversity.

Written by Beau Willimon, directed by Josie Rourke, and based on the book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy, Mary Queen of Scots recounts the struggle between Mary I of Scotland and Queen Elizabeth I over the throne of England, which they both claimed. The film takes place between Mary’s return to Scotland in 1561 and her execution (sorry, spoiler) in 1587.

From what I can tell, the film is largely historically accurate, depending on the source. However, several black actors and one actress of Chinese decent appear in prominent roles, particularly Mary Seton (Izuka Hoyle), Lord Randolph (Adrian Lester), Bess of Hardwick (Gemma Chan), Andrew Ker of Fawdonside (Nathan East), and the English Ambassador to Scotland, George Dalgleish (Adrian Derrick-Palmer). Being either English or Scottish in the 1500s, of course, all of these people were pasty white.

Director Josie Rourke declared she wasn’t going to make another “all-white period film,” but did she have to throw historic accuracy out the window to do so? Not at all. Elizabethan England was quite diverse (relatively speaking).

There are records of African musicians in the courts of England and Scotland as far back as the late 15th Century. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a small community of African traders, musicians, entertainers, and domestic servants grew up in London. Elizabeth herself was said to have employed a black servant, musician, and dancer.

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Commentary

Was Queen Anne a Lesbian?

‘The Favourite’ indulges contemporary attitudes about sex at the expense of history.

Anne, Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland (1702-1707) and Great Britain (1707-1714).

The Favourite, a recently-released period film written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, imagines an illicit sexual relationship between Queen Anne of Great Britain and two of her female confidants. But is that accurate, or anachronistic?

Queen Anne (played by Olivia Colman) ruled England, Scotland, and Ireland (and then Great Britain) from 1702 to 1714. The film takes place during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, the husband of Queen Anne’s close friend, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, was commander of Allied forces in that conflict. Marlborough was caught between the two political parties in Britain: the Tories and Whigs. Queen Anne favored the Tories, who wanted peace, but the Whigs had gained considerable power alongside Sarah Churchill (played by Rachel Weisz), who had the Queen’s ear and advocated on their behalf.

Sarah Churchill was notoriously headstrong and spoke her mind freely and openly, which began to get on the Queen’s nerves. In 1711, Queen Anne dismissed the Duke of Marlborough from service over charges of embezzlement. John and Sarah Churchill went into exile a year later. Sarah’s break with the Queen was exacerbated by her rivalry with her cousin, Abigail (Hill) Masham (played by Emma Stone). Sarah tried to have Abigail removed from the Queen’s household, and when she could not, accused Abigail and the religiously conservative Queen of having a sexual relationship.

That’s where The Favourite comes in. The Favourite depicts Sarah as a jealous lover carrying on an illicit sexual affair with the Queen. It conspicuously omits Queen Anne’s great religious devotion and the fact she was married to Prince George of Denmark, though he died in 1708. The only evidence of a love affair comes from romantic letters written between the two and rumors spread by political rivals.

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Reviews

Outlaw King: It’s Not Braveheart

This Netflix film praised for its historical accuracy is missing that essential ingredient to make it great.

Robert the Bruce’s fourteenth-century rebellion against England is cinematically recounted in this Netflix feature that tries to cram as much history as possible in 121 minutes. Directed by David Mackenzie, Outlaw King (2018) brings to life all the intrigue and violence of late medieval feudalism. Though the film comes across as authentic and makes a genuine effort to get the history right, it lacks some essential ingredients to break into the top tier.

As the film opens, the defeated Scottish lords are vowing fealty to King Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane), including Robert Bruce (Chris Pine), Lord John III Comyn (Callan Mulvey), and Aymer de Valence (Sam Spruell). Robert has history with King Edward I’s son, Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), a weaker man who just wants his father’s approval. As a parting gift, King Edward I sends his goddaughter, Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), to become Robert’s wife.

Things get complicated when Robert’s father dies, and Robert is left competing with Lord Comyn for the Scottish throne. When Robert learns King Edward I executed William Wallace, he senses an opportunity to renew the rebellion. Lord Comyn wants to remain loyal to England, so Robert brutally murders him in a church and then gathers an army. Unfortunately, Aymer de Valence has also remained loyal to England, ambushes Robert’s army in a forest, and destroys it.

Robert and a few companions are forced to flee. He sends his wife and daughter into hiding, where Edward, Prince of Wales captures them and brutally murders Robert’s brother. Robert decides to fight a guerilla war, culminating in the Battle of Loudoun Hill, where Robert uses the boggy terrain and clever tactics to his advantage. He defeats the English army and humiliates the Prince of Wales, who is revealed to be a miserable coward. Robert and Elizabeth are reunited and live happily ever after.

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Reviews

Mary Shelley: The ‘Sturm und Drang’ that Inspired Frankenstein

The early life of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of the Gothic novel Frankenstein, is recounted in Mary Shelley (2018) a period drama/romance written by Emma Jensen and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. It was originally titled The Storm in Our Stars, and focuses mainly on the relationship between Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and how their relationship inspired Frankenstein—the story of a mad doctor who reanimated a corpse using electricity. It left me wishing someone had shot a jolt of electricity into this sullen and mediocre film.

The year is 1814. Sixteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin (Elle Fanning) lives in London with her father, writer and book seller William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), her stepmother, Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggatt), and stepsister, Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley). Mary greatly admires her birth mother, early feminist theorist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died when she was a baby. Her rebellious streak sets her at odds with her more conventional stepmother, and her father sends her away to Scotland.

In Scotland, Mary meets 21-year-old poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), who follows her back to London under the pretense of becoming her father’s student. The two fall in love, but things get complicated when Percy’s wife Harriet (Ciara Charteris) shows up with their young son. Bucking social convention, Mary, Percy, and Claire run away together and face financial hardship and the death of their first child.

Meanwhile, Claire attracts the attention of Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) and becomes pregnant. Together with John Polidori (Ben Hardy), they spend a few tumultuous weeks together in Geneva, where Byron challenges them to a ghost story writing contest. This inspires Mary to begin writing Frankenstein. After becoming estranged over Percy’s deplorable personality, the two reunite in her father’s bookshop and live happily ever after.

Historically, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) was the daughter of radical political philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. She met Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley as a teen and they married in 1816 after Percy’s first wife, Harriet, committed suicide. Mary Shelley is mostly known for writing the Gothic novel Frankenstein (1818), which was published when she was twenty years old. Percy died in a boating accident in 1822 and Mary returned to England with their fourth and only surviving child. She went on to publish several other novels, in addition to promoting her late husband’s work.

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Reviews

The Secret Scripture: A Romantic Irish Tale

An elderly woman with an enigmatic past pines her days away in an asylum, until a doctor begins investigating her case and ultimately gives them both a second chance at life in The Secret Scripture (2016). It is a romantic tale filmed on location in Ireland and is one of those films audiences seemed to like but critics panned. Beautiful cinematography and emotional depth masks an otherwise ridiculous plot.

The Secret Scripture is based on a novel of the same name by Sebastian Barry, author of A Long Long Way (2005). It was released in Canada and the U.K. in 2016 but came to the U.S. in October of this year. It was adapted for the screen and directed by Jim Sheridan, who also directed My Left Foot (1989) and The Boxer (1997). Both Sebastian Barry and Jim Sheridan were born in Dublin and have focused their careers on highlighting the Irish experience.

The film centers on Roseanne McNulty (Vanessa Redgrave), an elderly woman in a mental institution who allegedly murdered her child. Dr. William Grene (Eric Bana) comes to evaluate Rose to see if she is sane enough to live on her own, because the institution is being remodeled into a spa. Dr. Grene becomes fascinated with her life story after discovering a journal she’s kept, written on the pages of a Bible.

As a young woman, Rose (Rooney Mara) lives in Belfast with her sweetheart, Michael McNulty (Jack Reynor). He leaves to join the British air force during World War 2. She moves to the Irish countryside to escape the German bombing raids, only to run afoul of local conventions. After being exiled from her aunt’s cafe to an isolated cottage, Michael just so happens to be shot down in her backyard and she hides him from Irish partisans.

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The Limehouse Golem: A Ghoulish Portrayal of Victorian London

Based on the 1994 novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd, The Limehouse Golem (2016) is a ghoulish portrayal of a Victorian London slum and the stone-faced detective trying to solve a series of grizzly and sensational crimes. It was directed by Juan Carlos Medina and adapted for the screen by Jane Goldman.

Medina is an inexperienced director, having only four films under his belt since 2001, and only two were full-length. Goldman wrote screenplays for The Woman in Black (2012), X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), and Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). Her talented script shines through.

In the opening act, Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke) is arrested on suspicion of poisoning her husband, John (Sam Reid). Meanwhile, Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) is tasked to solve the “Limehouse Golem” murders, which have become sensationalized in the press. He enlists the help of a Limehouse bobby George Flood (Daniel Mays).

They discover the Golem’s diary written on the pages of “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” (1827) by Thomas De Quincey in a library and narrow the suspects to four men: philosopher Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), writer George Gissing (Morgan Watkins), comedian Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), and John Cree.

Inspector John Kildare is not an adept detective and even refers to himself as a scapegoat. Focusing almost entirely on handwriting analysis to whittle down a list of four suspects, he misses obvious clues like the fact that no new murders occur after the death of John Cree and the imprisonment of Elizabeth. The Limehouse Golem made it clear he was seeking fame above all else; he would not let someone else take the blame while he quietly slipped away, meaning the murderer had to either be John or Elizabeth.