I was really looking forward to The Favourite. It had a lot going for it. The period – the reign of Queen Anne, the end of the Stuart dynasty and the wars with Louis XIV – is an important piece of British history but has rarely been tackled in modern popular culture. The core plot of battling rival Queen’s favourites was a good one, with great scope for a hilarious period romp. The three strong leading actresses, great costumes and the wonderful Hatfield House locations were all strong positives. And yet I came away feeling very disappointed, that I had just spent two hours watching a very average film, with a great film trying to get out.
The main problem is that the film seems to be suffering a major identity crisis. It can’t quite decide whether it’s a bawdy romp, a serious drama about interpersonal dynamics or a sombre historical portrayal. As a result it misses all three targets. I appreciate that Anne was quite a tragic figure, and there are some unavoidable poignancies, but a slightly lighter touch would have let the "bawdy romp" out to play, rather than keeping it somewhat repressed.
The music (I’m very tempted to write "the alleged music") really doesn’t help. It actually took me a while to realise that the incessant sawing on a couple of string instruments was actually meant to be incidental music, rather than just some weird background sound effect representing troublesome Stuart plumbing or the like. This gets to the point where you are listening to it rather than following the action and dialog, and then you suddenly get blasted by a full "Night at the Opera" fanfare on the organ, for even relatively minor twists in the plot. It reminded me of the ghastly alleged music in Dunkirk, but at least Christopher Nolan had the excuse that he was trying to tell three overlapping stories with time playing out at completely different rates, which isn’t the case here. Now I know that occasional twinkles on the virginal or the odd burst of something recognisable by Vivaldi are very traditional, but they would have worked here, whereas what was provided definitely did not.
The dialogue was unnecessarily crude. I have no problem with swearing, but it needs to be in the right context and period. If I watch something about 21st Century New Jersey gangsters (for example), and every other sentence has a f*** or c*** that’s fair enough. Take two incompetent hit men, stick them in an enforced holiday in a charming Belgian town, and you can even make that a hilarious core part of the work, as in the incomparable In Bruges. But in The Favourite it just feels out of time, and out of place. It’s also wholly unnecessary. 18th Century English was rich with frequently hilarious euphemisms for sex, body parts and so on, and a bit of effort could have sprinkled these into the dialogue to much greater effect. As Upstart Crow demonstrates so well, you don’t even have to bother with the detailed historical research: I have no idea whether Elizabethans actually used the term "cod-dangle", but we all get what it means, it sounds right, and it’s genuinely funny.
I did enjoy some bits of The Favourite, and I did laugh in many of the right places. It’s not The Revenant. But just as the central character in that film spends a grim time hiding from his protagonists in a horse’s corpse, The Favourite feels like a better film has been partially hidden by a layer of pretentiousness and crudity which it really didn’t need.