The 75th Venice Film Festival has begun very promisingly. Wednesday’s opening movie, reviewed in these pages yesterday, was the engrossing and moving First Man, about the life of Neil Armstrong leading up to his momentous 1969 moonwalk.
The pick of yesterday’s festival films offered more cinematic pleasure. The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and set in the debauched, corrupt court of England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) while the War of the Spanish Succession rages on the continent, is an absolute hoot.
Colman, of course, is soon to play Queen Elizabeth II in the
At the start of the film, Anne shows Sarah a model of the fabulous palace she is giving her and her husband, the Duke (Mark Gatiss), to mark his famous triumph at the Battle of Blenheim.
But that victory didn’t actually end the war, Sarah points out. ‘Oh, I did not know that,’ replies the Queen, who is not only dim, but also crippled with gout, overweight and given to eating until she throws up. Her courtiers might flatter her absurdly, but the camera does not.
Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in the film The Favourite which will be released in November
Colman, hobbling along the corridors of her palace (actually Hatfield House, in Hertfordshire), gives an uproarious and decidedly un-vain performance.
Weisz is similarly excellent, playing Sarah at times almost like the thigh-slapping principal boy in a panto. So is Emma Stone as Abigail Hill, an ambitious, conniving servant who inveigles her way first into Sarah’s affections, then into the Queen’s.
Abigail comes from an aristocratic family, indeed her father was Sarah’s cousin. But he was also irredeemably feckless. ‘When I was 15 my father lost me in a card game,’ says Abigail, matter-of-factly. Sarah condescendingly tosses her a job as a kitchen maid.
However, Abigail has not arrived at court to scrub floors. When she uses her foraging skills to make a herbal treatment for the Queen’s gout, she begins her inexorable rise in the court hierarchy.
Then she discovers that there is a very secret dimension to the relationship between Sarah and the Queen, who even have pet names, Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley, for each other.
How can she use this knowledge to her advantage?
By this stage it has occurred to the audience that the film’s title might not refer to Weisz’s calculating Duchess, but to Stone’s social-climbing servant. Yet Sarah will still take some supplanting as the power behind the throne.
She is politically astute, a vital ally to the Prime Minister (James Smith), as he seeks to raise taxes to subsidise the war effort, which is led in the field by her heroic husband.
Her sworn enemy is the Leader of the Opposition, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), who hopes to outflank Sarah by recruiting Abigail as a spy.
Handily, his protégé Colonel Masham (Joe Alwyn) fancies Abigail rotten. ‘Have you come to seduce me or rape me?’ she asks, as he slips into her room one night.
‘I am a gentleman,’ Masham replies, indignantly.
‘So, rape then,’ she mutters.
All this bawdiness and chicanery would be entertaining enough, but it is given a raucous spin by Lanthimos, working from a very funny original screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara.
He has a ball, in one marvellous scene quite literally, with the baroque fashions of the time — all those powdered wigs, rouged cheeks and fake beauty spots. The Greek director has worked with Colman and Weisz before, on 2015’s The Lobster. I didn’t blow rhapsodies at that film, as many did, and preferred his 2017 picture The Killing Of A Sacred Deer. But this is his best yet; Lanthimos has an eye for the grotesque that suits overt comedy even better than it does quirky horror.
He is aided by a whimsical chamber-music score, and by Robbie Ryan’s clever cinematography, which sometimes uses a fish-eye lens to wreak further distortion on the film’s twisted characters.
The basic framework of the story is entirely factual. Abigail Masham, as she became, really did topple Sarah Churchill as the Queen’s favourite, if not perhaps as ruthlessly as she does here.
But cheekily and hilariously, Lanthimos also sprinkles the story with anachronisms, including a dance that is more Saturday Night Fever than House of Stuart and had the Venice audience guffawing loudly.
There is poignancy, though, beneath all the fun. Abigail finds a way to Anne’s heart partly by playing with the 17 rabbits the Queen keeps in her bedchamber as substitutes for the 17 children she has lost.
Yet a later act of callous cruelty reminds us that Abigail does not have her sovereign’s best interests at heart, in fact barely has a heart at all.
The Duchess, for all her machinations, genuinely does. At its own heart, this is a film about friendship.
The Favourite opens in the UK on January 1 next year.
Mupper caper strictly for grown-ups
Think of the Muppets or Sesame Street with all the wit and joy extracted, replaced with a barrage of expletives and crass vulgarity that might have been crafted by over-excited fifth-formers, and you have The Happytime Murders, out this week.
The premise, and indeed the first few minutes, are promising enough. Director Brian Henson (son of Muppets creator Jim Henson) and screenwriter Todd Berger have created a film noir set in Los Angeles where the second-class citizens are not poor blacks or Hispanics, but Muppet-style puppets.
Melissa McCarthy stars in The Happytime Murders which has been rated 2/5 by Brian Viner
Taking a classic film genre and giving it a sharp twist is nothing new — Alan Parker did it more than 40 years ago with Bugsy Malone. But done well, it can still be fun.
It took my wife and me about five minutes to realise that The Happytime Murders is not fun. We watched it at the Odeon in Hereford on Monday evening, where even the cackles of a quartet of adolescent boys, for whom the highlight was a scene in which two puppets have rampant and extremely messy sex, fairly quickly petered out. The film’s hero is Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta), a Sam Spade-type private investigator who was the LAPD’s first non-human detective until he was kicked off the force, stigmatised by the trumped-up allegation that he would not shoot his fellow puppets. Following a shotgun massacre in a porn shop, Phil realises that the targets of a warped vendetta are members of The Happytime Gang, puppet TV stars.
Also investigating the murders is his former LAPD partner, the racist (ie anti-puppet) Connie, played by Melissa McCarthy. They loathe each other but are forced to work together, as they try to solve the murders and protect the rest of the cast, including its only human member, Phil’s ex-lover Jenny (Elizabeth Banks).
Maya Rudolph also pops up, as Phil’s devoted secretary, but don’t be misled by the presence of some fine comic actresses; they are wasted in the service of a series of unfunny set-pieces and feeble running gags, including one, in which McCarthy’s character is mistaken for a man, that has the musty whiff of sheer desperation.
Captivated by the comrades in arms
This sumptuous Polish-language picture, also out now, deservedly landed Pawel Pawlikowski, born in Warsaw but raised in the UK, the Best Director award at Cannes.
Shot in black and white, and lasting only 84 minutes, it is the exquisitely-told tale of a decades-long love affair that defies boundaries of class and age, as well as post-war tensions between East and West.
It opens in 1949, in rural and already staunchly Communist Poland. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a middle-aged musical director auditioning young men and women for a troupe of singers and dancers intended to showcase the country’s folk music traditions. Among those auditioning is the feisty, pretty, altogether beguiling Zula (Joanna Kulig).
Wiktor is instantly smitten. Soon they are lovers, and he helps to turn her into a celebrated solo artist. The story follows them, via East Berlin, Paris and Poland again, with the misery and paranoia of state Communism as the backdrop, up to 1964.
If Pawlikowski had really indulged himself, Cold War could have easily run to a Dr Zhivago-like three hours plus. By telling his absorbing story in less than an hour and a half, he shows what a consummate film-maker he is.