Reel Dad: The Favourite rewrites and refreshes history

Movies teach us what to expect on screen.

We know we should get scared if we go to a thriller. Or, if we see a comedy, hopefully, we will chuckle, or get teary at the end of a romantic drama. And, if we see a musical, we may sense our feet starting to tap now and then to the tunes.

When we experience a lavish costume drama about the British monarch at the theater, the movies teach us to expect a lot of extravagant sets and clothes, get to know people who take themselves quite seriously, observe the most proper table manners, and hear a lot of lofty dialogue about ideas and ideals.

But director Yorgos Lanthimos — a few years after he lampooned the romantic comedy with The Lobster — has new ideas in mind to tell the story of Britain’s Queen Anne who ruled the nation for 12 years in the early 1700s. Forget everything you may expect from a movie about Royals. Lanthimos uses his audacious approach to filmmaking to reinvent the traditional costume drama into a laugh fest filled with sugar, spice and everything far from nice. Nothing is sacred in this tale of deceit, ambition, secrets and many lies.

Not since Joseph L. Mankiewicz dazzled audiences with All About Eve in 1950 has a film had so much fun playing with the egos, expectations and eccentricities of powerful women determined to become more powerful. Much like Mankiewicz showed no hesitation as he dissected the throne of theatrical royalty, Lanthimos tosses conventions of respect and dignity out the window as he wonders what may have happened behind closed castle doors so many years ago.

From the film’s first moments we know we are in for something we haven’t seen. This Queen is far from the regal parade we usually find in such dramas. This monarch burps. And belches. She revolts. This Queen cherishes bunny rabbits. And she rules an empire. But she is human, after all, and susceptible to the irregularities of emotions in her complex relationship with Lady Sarah, a target of the Queen’s affection and accusation. The dysfunctional layers of their friendship become even more complicated when Sarah’s cousin Abigail arrives, a fresh face in a court filled with too many worn faces. The fangs immediately appear as the two women compete for the Queen’s attention, trust and affection.

If this still sounds like a Masterpiece Theater episode, take a closer look. With razor-sharp dialogue, the film sounds more like a present-day reality show about real housewives than a tribute to Royals. Visually, Lanthimos freely uses the movements of his camera and the distortion of his lenses to syncopate his exaggerated view. And not since All About Eve have we had such a chance to savor three master-class actresses — Olivia Colman (Anne), Rachel Weisz (Sarah) and Emma Stone (Abigail) — approach their performances with such intense abandon. They are each sublime.

Yes, the movies will, likely, continue to churn out traditional costume dramas. But after The Favourite, we may be less willing to accept the conventional take. This film gives us the permission to ponder what actually happens when the lights in the castle dim so a Queen can pursue her real agendas.

Film Nutritional Value: The Favourite

  • Content: High. This complicated look at what people fear reminds us no matter how accomplished someone may be, anyone can be distracted by possibilities.

  • Entertainment: High. As the film explores the complications in one Queen’s life, it engages our imaginations in what could actually have happened behind closed castle doors.

  • Message: Medium. As director Yorgos Lanthimos rewrites history, he makes us think about the assumptions we make about people we know through history. But this is not a message picture. Nor does it try to be.

  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to see such a fresh take on a traditional movie genre is always relevant. But The Favourite is not a movie for the entire family.

  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie offers an entertaining time at the movies for adults. But it’s not for kids.

The Favourite, running 1 hour, 59 minutes, is rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and language. 5 Popcorn Buckets.

All About Eve: As sharp and candid as The Favourite

I love all kinds of movies.

And I savor films about strong women willing to reveal their weaknesses.

That may be one reason watching The Favourite — with its daring approach to relationships among Royals — brings to mind this classic Oscar winner from Joseph L. Mankiewicz from 1950. Much as the intricate dialogue in The Favourite forces us to listen, Mankiewicz also uses words to dissect the layers of dysfunction that can build between friends.

Mankiewicz, who won back-to-back Oscars in 1949 and 1950 for writing and directing — was a master of great dialogue. He loved to take a character and reveal his or her inner thoughts through well-crafted words that followed specific rhythms unique to each conversation. While his movies may not have had a lot of action — certainly not the visuals of gun battles or fist fights — they became verbal tennis matches where characters tried to loft the most focused remark to each other as if hoping to win the next point or round. His movies became marvelous collections of beautifully crafted dialogue that conveyed rich characterizations unlike anyone I ever met in the small suburb of Aurora, Colorado.

I will never forget the first time I saw this film. My parents went out for the evening, and All About Eve was the featured choice on NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies. “See Bette Davis at her most demanding! See Anne Baxter at her most appealing!” said the advertisements. I couldn’t wait. So, as I did on many an evening, I sat in my bedroom, finished off my “tv dinner” and sat back to take a trip to the marvelous world of the Broadway theater. I was nine.

Immediately I became transfixed by this pass through the backstage hallway. Here was Bette Davis playing one of the great characters, Margo Channing, a woman driven to succeed and frightened of aging, who surprisingly befriends a young actress, Eve Harrington, played by Anne Baxter, who later becomes a much more central part of her life than Channing could ever have expected. While at first I feared I might not be able to keep up with Mankiewicz’ dialogue, I soon found something following along with each verbal volley as if watching a great tennis match. I was simply amazed that anyone could have such a quick mind as to write such witty words. In Aurora, no one talked quite like this. For me, All About Eve shaped so much of how I viewed the Broadway theater at that early age, long before I ever saw a play in New York. It created, for me, the picture of the larger-than-life personalities that could fill theaters. How appropriate that, a few years later, the first show I saw on Broadway was Applause, ironically, the musical version of All About Eve.

Years later, when I first introduced the film to my son Jonathan, when he was about nine, I warned him that, at first, he might wonder what all the fuss was about. By the time he was nine, he had been exposed to so much more entertainment, on television and in live theater and in movies, that All About Eve might seem too simple a story for such a sophisticated young man. But me fears were unfounded. He was, just as his dad, fascinated by the agendas people pursue in order to influence, perhaps control, other people. And how, when we encounter extreme personalities, we have to rely on our instincts of survival. Because, in the jungle of people, only the strong seem to survive. At least in Mankiewicz films.

As you watch this movie, even if you have seen it before, pay special attention to the marvelous moments that simply live forever. Notice how Davis, in the performance of her career, makes the most of each gesture and word, as if trying to make each moment last, knowing she might never get to play such a role again (which, sadly, proved to be true). Notice how Anne Baxter, as the ever-attentive Eve, modulates her voice to maintain an illusion of calm, while seething just below the surface. Notice the great Celeste Holm, in a simple role, make the most of each moment she is on camera. And notice an early screen appearance of Marilyn Monroe, perhaps forgettable at the time, but fascinating in the context of her later career. As well, simply notice how differently people lived in 1950, from the way they board airplanes to the ways they dress to the proliferation of cigarette smoking to the changes in automobiles. Yes, movies can also be marvelous sources for time travel, too.

Still, as you watch the film, don’t forget to listen. Mankiewicz is, simply, the master of dialogue, and All About Eve is as well written a film as you will ever experience. And a perfect companion to The Favourite.

All About Eve, released in 1950, runs 2 hours, 18 minutes. It was nominated for a then-record 14 Oscars and ultimately won six, including Best Picture, and Director and Screenplay for Joseph L. Mankiwiecz. But Bette Davis lost to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.