Jealousy, betrayal, abuse of power—one might look to the current news for ample displays of said activities, or one can watch The Favourite, starring three fine actresses in a historically-based tale of court intrigue, scheming, and the various ways one might curry favor—political or otherwise. Inspired by various documents and memoirs (including one by Winston Churchill, descendant of Sarah Churchill, one of the protagonists), The Favourite recounts a battle of wills in 1708 England during Queen Anne’s reign, where the gout-ridden Queen (Olivia Colman) largely avoids pressing situations (such as the costly war with France) and instead devotes her time to being advised by confidant and part-time lover Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Enter Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s impoverished cousin, who arrives at court but is relegated to scullery duty. Naturally, Abigail seeks advancement and comfort—and if it comes at Sarah’s expense, so be it. The wary Sarah spots the seemingly earnest Abigail as a potential threat, while Queen Anne seems content to let the competition play out. And while there are male characters in this power play (including a fine Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley, a ruthless, influential landowner), they are largely on the sidelines; in The Favourite, it is the women who drive the action.
Of course, it helps that The Favourite has its three major characters portrayed by Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone. As Queen Anne, Colman is magisterial, vulnerable—and as manipulative as the two younger women who hope to benefit (or continue to benefit) from her favor. Rachel Weisz is convincing as the still-attractive confidant and power behind the throne, equally adept at portraying Sarah’s sense of entitlement and her subsequent desperation in the face of a younger candidate for the Queen’s ear (and whatever else the Queen may supply). Emma Stone also impresses, as an initially sympathetic Abigail’s willingness to escape from drudgery gives way to ambition, duplicity, and seeming sexual submission—and not necessarily for England. There are some tonal shifts in the film (it is definitely not the romp the trailers make it seem), and there is some contemplation of the human cost involved in the hallowed halls of power. However, in the end, The Favourite, as directed by Yorgos Lanthinos with the benefit of a clever, witty screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, provides thoroughly engrossing, occasionally thought-provoking entertainment.
Peter Farrelly’s Green Book is another captivating film—amusing, poignant, and even incisive at times. It is also more than a little predictable, as it tells the fact-based story of a New York City tough guy and family man Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) in need of some extra cash. He agrees to chauffeur prominent black jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on a tour of the Midwest leading into the deep South, even though Tony is not the most tolerant fella in the world. However, he does supply the self-assured, rough and tumble persona (and driving skills) that Shirley needs while traveling through the hostile territory that was (is?) the deep South. (There are also some other issues that come into play—and which you will probably guess.) The action proceeds along (sadly) expected lines, from where the proud but compliant Shirley will stay, to the culture clashes with Tony, as well as concert officials and some racists who wear a badge. Needless to say, both Tony and Shirley emerge from the tour (on Christmas Eve, no less) a little more enlightened, if not necessarily spiritually reborn.
As written by Nick Vallelonga (Tony Vallelonga’s son), Brian Hayes Currie and Peter Farrelly, Green Book hits all the notes one might expect, but there are welcome moments of humor and warmth throughout. It also works better than it should because of three fine performances. Linda Cardellini does wonders as Tony’s wife, providing grit and humanity to her character’s limited screen time. Mahershala Ali continues to show why he didn’t need to return to House of Cards (I can’t be the only one who missed his sensitive characterization.) Ali conveys Shirley’s bearing and intelligence, but also his sense of being the eternal outsider, whether as a musician or as a black man. Ali makes Shirley’s inner anguish clear and affecting; the movie doesn’t need him to explain it—but he is given the opportunity anyway. As the bouncer/chauffeur, Viggo Mortensen is gruff and likably boorish, while also hinting at some deeper reserves of strength. Ali and Mortensen’s rapport is more than enough to make Green Book an enjoyable journey indeed.
Stan and Ollie, directed by Jon S. Baird, is coming soon, and it’s a well-done look at the beloved comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in the latter part of their career as a team—when they were touring the music halls of England at a time when their health was questionable and no film offers were forthcoming. A Laurel and Hardy fan might quibble with the screenwriter Jeff Pope’s reason for their later career difficulties—but there is no denying the skill, the comic finesse, and the warmth which Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly have imbued Stan and Ollie. Aided by make-up and prosthetics, the actors never strike a false note, whether they’re recreating some old routines, taking audiences through the creative process, or simply trying to relate to each other (and the public) as people, and not screen personas. (Although interestingly the film presents Stan and Ollie as being very aware of the public’s perception and expectation of them—and they act accordingly.) Coogan and Reilly beautifully convey not only the essence of their artistry, but the affection between the two. Stan and Ollie is also enhanced by fine supporting turns from Nina Arianda, a constant delight as Laurel’s acerbic but affectionate wife, and Shirley Henderson as Hardy’s protective spouse. Coogan, Reilly, Henderson and Arianda make this Stan and Ollie well worth seeing—and if the movie causes you to seek out the originals, then it’s all the better! (Start with the shorts Helpmates, The Music Box, and County Hospital—you can’t go wrong.)