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Alan Charlton

New 'historical drama' is all drama, little history

Voices Jan. 14, 2019

Olivia Coleman plays Queen Anne in The Favourite, a film based on unconfirmed suspicion that makes little use of the real dramas in the queen's life, writes Alan Charlton. (Yorgos Lanthimos photo / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

British cinema has long had a reputation for producing impressive so-called “historical dramas,” using locations from around the country, adding superb production values, and generally addressing significant issues, in high quality films, ranging from Henry V to Tom Jones, from A Man for All Seasons to The Madness of King George.

So it is that because of positive advance publicity, viewers, particularly those of a certain age, may well attend The Favourite, purportedly a film about Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart rulers. If so, they need to understand that they might (and probably will) find the film offensive, not only in its language, but also in its content.

One could find many interesting issues to address from the reign of Queen Anne, including the fact that during her reign England and Scotland were united to form Great Britain; the queen’s allegiance to the Protestant cause and suspicion of the Catholic Church which had a decided impact on the succession; the rise to Continental domination by Britain as a result of Marlborough’s victories; the tragedy that the queen bore seventeen children, none of whom survived to adulthood; her stormy relationship with her royal family; or even her suffering as she battled gout and obesity.

However, The Favourite largely concentrates on one aspect of her reign: the well-testified historical fact that for a number of years Lady Sarah Marlborough dominated Anne, taking advantage of her vulnerability, until Sarah’s distant relative Abigail Hill replaced her in the queen’s favour. This rivalry is essentially the only focus of the film. All the other issues of Queen Anne’s reign are reduced to confusing background noise which those unfamiliar with her story might find puzzling rather than enlightening.

It is true that there is a suspicion (far from a historical certainty) that Anne and Sarah had a lesbian relationship. The film chooses to take this as factual and uses this as the basis for a romantic (instead of power) struggle, between Anne (Olivia Colman), Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone). The slant of the film is made obvious in that the queen’s husband, whom she certainly loved, was alive during this period, though he is completely omitted from the film. Indeed, its historicity is doubtful throughout, including the nonsense that queen had seventeen rabbits, running around her palace as a decidedly awkward homage to her dead children. And just to make sure that the film titillates rather than informs, foul language and a number of salacious scenes are included.

It is true that the film is beautifully mounted, taking advantage of locations such as Hampton Court and Hatfield House. While the production values (including costumes and excellent acting), that one expects of such British historical dramas are present, clearly The Favourite is certainly looking for an audience vastly different from that which normally attends and enjoys such films. I’m not sure who will enjoy this clumsy project, but I doubt it has much audience appeal at all.

There are also difficulties with a vastly different historical film: Vice. It attempts to present a portrait of Dick Cheney, former vice-president under President George Bush.

Vice-presidents tend to be overlooked in history, but it is the claim of the film that Cheney actually dominated Bush, controlled the political agenda of the time, and was responsible for some of the most controversial decisions of the presidency.

Clearly the makers of the film have a decided bias and, indeed, obviously intend the film to be an unsubtle criticism of President Trump. Just how valid it is as history, one must leave to the experts; however, the film is certainly an attempt to break new cinematic ground.

To do this, director-writer Alan McKay has adopted a rather unconventional set of techniques, including a narrator whose identity is only clarified near the end of the film; a series of impressionistic, snapshot scenes; occasional original footage; and even admissions from time to time that one can only guess what actually happened. Some may find such an approach disconcerting, but the result is a film which is satisfyingly challenging from a cinematic viewpoint.

It is true that at times McKay over-reaches himself, but the film remains clever, entertaining, often humourous, and, if one can accept its historicity, disturbing. Well-acted (particularly by an unrecognizable Christian Bale as Cheney and a superb supporting cast), this is a film which, while it may not prove to be widely popular, is in my opinion one of the best films of 2018.

Its political agenda provides challenging content, even for non-Americans, though many will doubtless find its political premises unacceptable.

However controversial as it may be, Vice has the enormous advantage that it takes viewers on an intriguing and interesting journey.