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Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Serving as a feminist reclamation project, Mary Queen of Scots attempts to re-contextualize “Bloody Mary” in the royal dispute for the English throne. As played by Saoirse Ronan, Mary is portrayed as an empathetic, open-minded but strong-willed ruler looking to make peace between the two nations, and Elizabeth is portrayed as a flinty, scared, aloof woman that literally tells her younger cousin that she is her better in every manner. It’s a flip of how the two women are often portrayed throughout history, which raises the question of whether history has been twisted from centuries of revisionist and political obfuscation. There are definitely elements in this movie that I know are historically questionable, like Mary accepting a gay man into her royal court of ladies with open arms and a dismissive view of his sexual leanings. I find it hard to fathom that a devout Catholic woman who ordered heathens burned at the stake would be so anachronistically tolerant of homosexuality. If there’s a new theme for this costume drama it’s that women, even those in power, even those who were deemed wicked or corrupt by historians (universally men for centuries), were hemmed in by scheming men who were trying to usurp their power, undermine them, and manipulate them. Mary is thrown into one faulty suitor after another, positioning her as the victim of a patriarchal society. Again, I suspect there is validity to this context but it treats Mary with kid gloves, denying her righteous impulses. Ronan (Lady Bird) delivers a fine performance of grit and grace, but it’s Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) as Elizabeth that really misses the mark. She is sadly miscast and seems to shrink in the role. The depiction of Queen Elizabeth is also a disservice for drama and the concluding makeup reminded me of the Queen of Hearts from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderand. Mary Queen of Scots is an acceptable costume drama told with a little more heat (it’s R-rated for some reason) and a little more consideration to its subjects, but Mary Queen of Scots made me question the voracity of its portraits and made me really wish I was watching the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth movie instead.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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The Favourite (2018)

As soon as I saw the name Yorgos Lanthimos attached to the royal costume drama The Favourite I knew it would be one of my most anticipated films of 2018. I’m not naturally a sucker for these kinds of movies without some interesting new angle (Mary Queen of Scotts, we’ll meet soon), but Lanthimos has quickly become one of my favorite (favoruite?) voices in cinema, rivaling perhaps even the esteemed Charlie Kaufman. His movies are so wonderfully weird and tonally distinct. A Lanthimos joint, if you will, is two hours of surprises and expanding the surreal with assured foresight. He’s earned such a highly regarded reputation as far as I’m concerned that I’ll see any movie with his name attached in any creative capacity. The Favourite is a different kind of costume drama.

In the early 18th century, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is leading her country through a protracted conflict with the French that is weighing heavily on everyone. Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) is the Queen’s childhood friend, close confidant, and secret lover. She’s also perhaps the real power behind the throne, directly influencing the Queen to enact her own bullish policies. Harley (Nicholas Hoult), leader of a parliament, is worried about the country going bankrupt from the military expenditures. Enter Abigail (Emma Stone), a cousin to Sarah and someone seeking to save her once proud family’s name. She rises through the ranks and becomes a rival for the Queen’s affections and a threat for Sarah to maintain her position of power in the court and with the Queen.

What distinguishes a Lanthimos experience is the development and commitment to a distinct vision and the sheer unpredictability. You really never know where the man’s films will go next. One minute you’re following a man struggle to find a romantic partner, and the next they’re talking about turning people into lobsters. One minute you’re watching a family deal with a creepy stalker, and the next people are debating which family member should be killed in the darkest family game night ever enabled. Even though Lanthimos did not write The Favoruite, it still feels of his unique, deadpan, darkly comic worlds and his fingertips are all over it. The story is already playing fast and loose with the history (it’s pretty unlikely Queen Anne was a lesbian, despite the centuries of character assassination from Sarah) so its curiosity where it might go next is electric, especially when it shows some bite. This is a movie that’s not afraid to be dark, where characters can behave badly, testing our sympathy and allegiance as they fight for supremacy. I love how unapologetic the characters are in their pursuits. They will scheme and manipulate to whatever extent works and demonstrate abuse of power for power’s sake (poor bunny). “Favor is a breeze the shifts direction all the time,” says Harley. “Then in an instant you’re back sleeping with a bunch of scabrous whores.” The ensuring two hours of palace intrigue and political gamesmanship is given a sordid boost from the historical deviations, making the political more personal and even more intriguing. I cackled often throughout with the amazingly witty one-liners and curt insults as well as the wonky asides and tonal juxtaposition. It’s a funny movie for offbeat audiences who enjoy offbeat humor.

This is a costume drama that is radical amongst the stuffy world of prim and proper Oscar bait involving kings and queens and the ostentatious royal courts. I’d say it reminds me of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and how it broke from the long film tradition of costume dramas, but I’ve never watched Barry Lyndon, my lone Kubrick omission (what, do you have three hours to spare?). Lanthimos has an anachronistic visual style that allows The Favourite to feel modern and different as it plays in familiar terrain. What other Oscar drama can you expect to see a modern dance-off in the queen’s court? The visuals make use of very stylized deep photography with the use of fish-eyed lenses and a locked camera position even while panning and moving. It’s not exactly the colorful, punk rock aesthetic of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette but it gives the film a dreamlike, odd sensibility. It’s a nice visual pairing that achieves the same effect as the screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tom McNamara; it piques your interest, drawing you closer with each moment.

Lanthimos requires a very specifically attuned ironic wavelength that comes across as purposely deadpan, muted to better make the bizarre as the mundane. It’s a type of acting that can be very restrictive unless an actor can tap into that specific rhythm. The three women that top line The Favourite are each terrific. Colman (taking over Queen Elizabeth from Claire Foy in Netflix’s The Crown) is the standout as the temperamental monarch. Her favor is the prize and at some level she knows that people are playing games with her. It’s hard to know what degree of self-awareness Queen Anne is capable of considering she is beset by maladies both physical and mental (she really did lose 17 children in her lifetime, a dozen of them miscarriages). Because of all of this, the unpredictable nature of the Queen matches the unpredictable nature of the film, and one second she can be childish and defiant, the next playful and warm-hearted, the next manipulative and pushy, the next easily cowed and embarrassed. It’s a performance that has definite comic high-points as she howls at her servants and confuses her confidants, but there are layers to the character that Colman digs into. Sure she can be volcanic in rage or extremely funny when giving into the Queen’s whims, but it’s the degrees of sadness and vulnerability that creep through that round out the performance and person.

Weisz (Disobedience) has already starred in one kooky Lanthimos film (The Lobster) and easily slips into those peculiar comic rhythms again like a nicely fitting dress. Hers is the “fall” of the rise-and-fall tale, so she begins self-satisfied and ends humbled, except under Weisz she is never truly humbled. Her spirit does not break regardless of her unfortunate circumstances, including at one point being held hostage at a brothel. Even when she knows she must write a gracious letter she can’t help herself, composing drafts that keep veering into profane insults. Weisz is deliciously deadpan and never abandons the confines of that narrow acting range required for a pristine Lanthimos performance. Stone (La La Land) is the freshest face of the troupe as the underestimated young companion who rises through the ranks thanks to her cunning. Stone adopts a solid British accent, which is helpful, but her intonations are perfectly suited for Lanthimos. There are small, stranger moments where the character is breaking the facade with the audience to reveal an eager peculiarity, an imitation of a monster that’s random, or the most delightfully dismissive “yeah, sure” snort in the history of film. Stone is a versatile talent with comic bonafides, so it’s fun and satisfying to see her expand her already impressive, Oscar-winning range.

This is a movie that does not work without a distinct vision, sure handed direction, and pitch-perfect acting, all seamlessly working in tandem to create such a finely crafted dark comedy that can go in many perversely entertaining directions at a moment’s notice. Lanthimos and his cadre of award-worthy actresses have great, prankish fun playing dress up in their fancy locations and making a costume drama with a dash of anarchic farce. The Favourite doesn’t quite rise to the top of my own list of Lanthimos favorites (I’d probably rank it a noble third) but it’s still a razor-sharp, sardonic, unpredictable, and wonderfully, vibrantly weird movie worth celebrating.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The King’s Speech (2010)

Public speaking is a nerve-racking position. Nobody wants to seem like a fool but it can be hard to do anything else when all eyes fall upon you with expectation. There was a poll a few years ago that asked Americans what their top fears were, and death came in second to public speaking. The Grim Reaper should feel relieved. Now imagine that you’re the leader of a country during a time of duress and you have a speech impediment. That’s the grueling circumstances for King George VI (affectionately known as “Bertie” to family), leader of Britain on the eve of World War II. The King’s Speech tells the inspirational true story of one of the most powerful men in the world finding his own voice.

Before becoming king of his country, Bertie (Colin Firth) was the Duke of York and a man suffering from a debilitating stutter. When stressed, it was difficult for Bertie to even read a statement. This speech impediment is made all the more troublesome now that the world has entered into the radio age; kings and presidents are now expected to speak to their peoples, no longer content to just be a striking figurehead. Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), future Queen Mother, seeks out different speech therapists but the traditional methods are getting her husband nowhere. Then she comes across Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a self-taught speech therapist who worked with shell-shocked WWI soldiers in his native Australia. His methods are unorthodox but he’s the first to begin to get results with Bertie. The demands of his position get even greater when Bertie’s father, George V (Michael Gambon), dies in 1936 and Bertie’s older brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) abdicates the throne. Now Bertie is expected to lead his nation, that is, if he can string two sentences together in public.

The King’s Speech is really the heartwarming story of the unlikely friendship between a king and a quirky Australian commoner. Their warm, humane friendship allows for several scenes of great humor and great drama. Watching the irreverent Lionel bounce off the proper and isolated Bertie supplies plenty of comedy. It’s essentially an odd couple comedy mixed with a true-life historical drama. There’s great pleasure in watching the chilly relationship between classes thaw, the men grow closer together, and Lionel’s unconventional tactics make progress. Each time Bertie discovers a new practice that removes his stutter, whether it is speaking while listening to music or speaking in the cadence of a song. This is a film that follows the English tradition of understatement even given the dramatic setting, principle characters, and a speech impediment. The characters don’t go around blurting their feelings, leaving the actors room to explore oodles of subtext. There’s a signature scene where Lionel coaxes Bertie into opening up by promising to allow him to paint a child’s model airplane (a treat for a man of title never allowed such toys). As he paints away, Bertie reveals a damaging truth about a neglectful childhood nanny. The truth is so painful that Bertie is forced to reveal it through the cadence of song, which somehow makes the revelation more sad and tragic. Their ongoing relationship is deeply satisfying and emotionally rewarding.

You won’t see a better-acted movie all year, thanks to Firth and Rush. More than following a checklist of gimmicks, Firth inhabits his character from the inside out. He feels like a living, breathing, somewhat broken person instead of a collection of ailments. Firth doesn’t overdo his stutter and treats the character, and the ailment, with a deep sense of compassion. Firth gives what is likely the greatest acting performance by any male in 2010. He is magnificent, commanding, and empathetic in every scene. Likewise, Rush doesn’t overpower as a personality foil. His character manages to be irreverent but without being flippant; he finds a reverent irreverence, if you will. Lionel is treating the future King of England, and the gravity of this stately relationship is not lost on him. Both men hide an inner melancholy, perhaps one of the things that ultimately bonds them together. Rush is flush with vigor and merriment, truly delightful to watch. This is his finest onscreen performance since he won his Oscar in 1996 for Shine.

The enormity of the king’s duties is given due care. You feel the weight of the crown that awaits Bertie and empathize with his quaking hesitation. Ever since childhood, his family looked down on Bertie. His father felt a stern tone would best aid the young stammerer, and his older brother would often belittle Bertie with cruel taunts. You see flashes of this unhealthy dynamic when Edward cuts down his little brother after their father passes.

Bertie was seen as unimportant. Edward was the one set up for the throne. And yet Edward is the one who shirks his responsibilities in the name of love (a twice-divorced American woman). Edward refuses to become the leader of his people if the ancient rules forbid him from marrying a divorced woman. Bertie cannot buckle under the tremendous pressure and expectations that wait. Even when the rather passive Bertie lashes out, you feel like his anger is a moment of achievement. King George VI also had to deal with the fact that his brother is still alive and well and an alternative to the throne if Bertie is deemed incapable. Firth makes it easy to feel the remarkable pressure of being a leader not born or elected, merely expected. And even if an audience is clueless about British monarchy history and the rules of royal succession, The King’s Speech is easy to follow and comprehend for a daft American like myself.

Truth be told, The King’s Speech is a little stagy, a little square, and a little too fastidious for its own good. Hooper and crew are too content with making a pleasant moviegoing experience that the film lacks any slight form of edge. It’s all just a little too safe, a little too staid. While rated R, this movie could easily be a PG-13 family film, maybe even a PG one, sans the two sequences where Bertie unleashes a torrent of profanities in frustration (he discovers that he does not stutter while swearing). I feel like a curmudgeon for dinging a movie for being, essentially, too nice and gentle, but it clips the ambition of the movie when crowd-pleaser is the zenith of accomplishment. The fateful speech to the nation, on the eve of war with Germany, is even given an extra oomph thanks to the background music of Beethoven. A larger story of triumph seems reduced to the Oscar favorite storyline of Man Overcoming Physical Adversity. The direction by Hooper has some curious tics to it, like sequences of two people talking where they will never share the frame despite sitting side by side. I assume Hooper is trying to communicate some form of emotional distance or wariness, or perhaps it’s just a nod that different actors had unworkable schedules and could not be filmed together. Hooper is a talented director, as anyone who saw the massive undertaking of the masterful HBO miniseries John Adams can attest. However, like John Adams, Hooper is prone to TV-movie staging. His direction limits the cinematic power of the film. It looks like any ordinary episode of Masterpiece Theater.

The King’s Speech is pretty much everything you’d wish for in a movie groomed for awards consideration. This is prime Oscar bait. You may tear up at points, you’ll probably smile in many places, and your spirit will definitely rise. Plus it features some of the finest acting you’ll witness all year. And yet it’s that conscious need to please, to uplift, that can occasionally distract you from the many charms that The King’s Speech offers. The fact that the story is predictable is not a detriment, but the fact that the film doesn’t push harder, dig deeper, or expect more from its audience is a missed opportunity. The material is so rich, but a terrifically acted, smartly written film isn’t a bad consolation. Especially when that film happens to be one of the most rousing and rewarding theatrical experiences of the year.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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