Why The Favourite is not my favourite

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Emma Stone as rags-to-riches schemer Abigail Hill: one of several bravura performances in The Favourite, a movie that ultimately disappoints

A favourite activity for us relatively-recently-retired Traffords at present is enjoying the freedom to go to the cinema on a whim. As a result we’re certainly seeing many more films that we used to, and have learned a few things about much-vaunted new releases.

One lesson is not to believe the hype. For example, the world (and the BAFTAs) raved over The Favourite, giving Brit actor Olivia Colman a best actress award. Well, she was outstanding, shining in a film stuffed with good performances (especially her closest supporters, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) and blessed with stratospheric production values.

But was it a great film? We didn’t think so. Why? Because the plot doesn’t twist: it barely develops. It starts (spoiler alert!) with the ageing and petulant Queen Anne, truly a magisterial performance by Colman, enjoying (in every sense, including sexually) the favours of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz), whose husband was busy winning battles and earning his twin rewards of Dukedom and Blenheim Palace.

Along comes Sarah’s poor country cousin, Abigail Hill (Stone), a cleverly scheming young woman, who cunningly supplants her and become the new Favourite. And, er, that’s it. Beautifully done, and with some finely-wrought comic scenes: but the plot is entirely linear, from A to B, with no character-development. Even the setback of Abigail’s being sacked as Sarah’s companion/servant is swiftly overcome by her skilful play on Anne’s sympathies which sees her immediate installation as a lady of the bedchamber. Indeed, Abigail’s path to triumph is so inexorable that almost the only interest towards the end of the film lies in Colman’s vivid portrayal of Anne’s collapse into sickness and stroke, a bravura performance.

So loud have been the paeans of praise for The Favourite, it seems almost lèse majesté to criticise it. Yet the contrast with another recent historical royal movie, Mary Queen of Scots, is striking. We know Mary will be executed in the end: that’s history! But the twists and turns of her plight, the many betrayals she suffers and, somehow, the perpetual hope that she’ll escape her fate combine to render the film riveting.

Now, I’ve read the Hollywood screen-writer’s Bible* which describes the ideal plot-shape as a “transformational arc”: interestingly, it’s almost identical to the so-called bereavement curve, in which a bereaved individual moves through phases of denial/resistance to acceptance, determination and resolution. Most great movies (and books: think Les Misérables) conform to the model.

It will be instructive to see how The Favourite fares in the Oscars, given that central weakness in an otherwise beautiful creation. Conversely it reminded me, in a curious way, of too major modern TV dramas, including hard-hitting crime or espionage pieces, which lay out so many plot-strands that the final episode becomes little more than a frantic tying-up of as many loose ends as (it often appears) the office junior can pull together. In other deeply dissatisfying concluding scenes we’re left with a shameless cliff-hanger, “because the network’s got to commission a sequel, right?”

Notable recent exceptions to this rule include The Bodyguard and Les Misérables, superbly constructed and both permitted an extra fifteen minutes in the final episode so that their complex plots (in very different ways) could play out fully.

My friends and family reckon my favourite movies involve chases, shoot-outs and battles. Nonetheless I like an intelligent film, and particularly a period piece: but (like any other work) it needs a compelling, structured plot. And on that basis, The Favourite failed me. Not my favourite at all then.

Now we Traffords go to the cinema regularly, we’re spotting some patterns emerging. For example, there seems to be rule right now that plots need to cover either literary plagiarism or evangelical brainwashing against same-sex attraction – or superheroes. Now I’ve started on movie criticism (!), my next Hollywood-related piece for Voice of the North will deal with the current passion for stories about under-valued female writers.

How about under-appreciated male writers, I hear you ask? No: just too close to home…

*Inside-story: The Power of the Transformational Arc: The Secret to Crafting Extraordinary Screenplays by Dara Marks

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