This is the third female-led major release of early 2019 in the UK and for me it is the most interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed Colette but was underwhelmed by The Favourite (although I recognise the three outstanding performances by the female leads and Sandy Powell’s costumes). But Saoirse Ronan as Mary tops all the others. Margot Robbie is also very good and we are blessed with such an array of powerful female stars in contemporary cinema. At one point in Mary Queen of Scots, Ms Ronan managed to invoke both Deborah Kerr and Maureen O’Hara as an auburn-haired Scots-Irish woman and I can’t think of a better recommendation.
It may be because I have only the faintest remembrance of the Mary story from the history books of my childhood that I found this the most engaging of the three narratives about female figures in specific historical contexts. Perhaps right now it is because it speaks to my desperation in Brexit England and a strong feeling that I would rather be in Ireland or Scotland. Mary’s story is about both the Catholic-Protestant struggle in the British Isles and the ‘Auld Alliance’ between France and Scotland, two countries concerned by the nascent imperialist visions of England (though the French angle is dropped too early I think). All of this comes down to the confrontation between the cousins Mary and Elizabeth and the former’s belief that she has the prior claim to be queen in both Scotland and England. It is a story that has been told many times, sometimes by unlikely story-tellers. I’ve tried in the past to watch John Ford’s Mary of Scotland (1936) with Katharine Hepburn as Mary. Ford’s Irish Catholicism naturally backs Mary and by all accounts he was entranced by Hepburn who was well able to spar with him. I’d like to see that again now. There have since been many TV offerings of Mary’s story and at least three more feature films before the current release. In 1940 the biggest star in Nazi cinema, Zarah Leander, played Mary in a German film. In 1971 Vanessa Redgrave was Mary opposite Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth in Charles Jarrot’s film Mary, Queen of Scots and in 2013 Camille Rutherford appeared as Mary in a French-Swiss version of the story.
It’s not difficult to see the attraction of the story of an intelligent and passionate woman who finds herself Queen in such difficult circumstances- and sometimes makes unwise decisions. Mary attracts the more romantically-inclined narratives while Elizabeth has often become the focus for the stories of adventure and strength in building up English naval and mercantilist power (though famously also the romantic adventures of Elizabeth and Essex (US 1939)). The two Elizabeth films starring Cate Blanchett in 1998 and 2007 portray Elizabeth in terms of creating the myths of British power. The script for the new film by the American writer Beau Gallimon is based on John Guy’s prizewinning biography My Heart is My Own: the Life of Mary Queen of Scots published in 2004. Guy is a highly-respected historian but this was a book which attempted to dismantle the mythology surrounding Mary and it had its critics. I’m not sure how closely Gallimon sticks to Guy’s ideas, but the film has also been criticised. I’m sure that there are the usual condensings of characters and time-lines but at heart the film tries to stick to historical events apart from its fictional meeting between Elizabeth and Mary.
I think there are several interesting elements in this production. I was struck by the use of landscape. Scotland and the North of England are characterised by sweeping long shots of mountains and glens through which Mary and her entourage travel. (See Scottish locations used here.) By contrast, Elizabeth is seen only in her palace in London. John Mathieson as cinematographer has long experience of productions like this, working on Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood for Ridley Scott among several other similar titles. Director Josie Rourke making her first film is a celebrated stage director and I was interested in the settings for Mary’s Holyrood court which seemed to me more intriguing than the stiffness and formality of Elizabeth’s English court. I suspect that Alexandra Byrne’s costumes also work to distinguish the two court settings. Again I felt drawn to the Scots locations rather than Elizabeth’s. The distinction also arises in relation to the question of casting. Several prominent Scots actors are depicted in Holyrood with Martin Compston as Bothwell, James McCardle as Moray, Jack Lowden as Darnley and David Tennant almost unrecognisable as John Knox. Researching this I discovered that the distinction carries through to the more controversial aspect of the casting. At last we have a British film with a significant number of BAME actors in a major historical drama. Some of these are prominent roles such as Adrian Lester as Elizabeth’s Ambassador to Scotland and Gemma Chan as one of her ladies-in-waiting. Others are in smaller roles and here I found the Scottish-Asian actor Kal Sabir. This approach has sadly produced an array of ‘outraged’ IMDb User Comments. Some of these are clearly racist but others suggest a lack of knowledge of British history. There have been ‘people of colour’ living in the UK since at least Roman times. But anyway it doesn’t really matter whether the casting is historically accurate. It’s no longer an issue for someone like Adrian Lester to play classical (e.g. Shakespearean) roles on stage so why should it matter on screen?
But how has this film gone down in Scotland you might ask? I’m not sure, but checking out the reviews in The Scotsman and the Herald, I found the first lukewarm but the second complimentary and I came across at least one piece wondering why an Irish woman was playing Mary. More intriguing as I thumbed through several reviews was that most of the negative reviews came from men and most of the positive ones came from women. Has Josie Rourke managed to make a film in which women (not just a solitary woman) have significant roles in the history of the British Isles? I’d say yes. I’m hesitant in arguing that Rourke shows aspects of the two monarchs from a clearly female perspective, but it is certainly true that I thought quite a lot about what being a female monarch in the 16th century actually meant and how child-bearing and questions of fertility were so important in the legal/constitutional wrangles over claims to the thrones of England and Scotland during this period. I’ve been a fervent anti-monarchist for as long as I can remember, but thanks to Saoirse Ronan and Josie Rourke this production made me feel for Mary’s predicament.
The Favourite was released in the UK on New Year’s Day and seems to have started the period of, for me at least, the dark days of ‘Awards Season’ when even the most clued-up programmers in specialised cinemas are forced to screen every English language ‘art’ film angling for Oscars and BAFTAs. I fear that The Favourite may be another Three Billboards or La La Land – a film with genuine merits that is taken up by critics, heavily promoted and embraced by a significant audience, but which on closer inspection turns out to be seriously flawed. There are some significant differences compared to the other two titles mentioned above. The Favourite has three strong performances by powerful female actors and it appears to have been embraced by women in particular. It clearly ‘speaks’ to certain female audiences – but what does it say?
I’ve seen only one of the previous films of Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth (Greece 2009), and I had a similar reaction to that film so it was a bit of a gamble to choose to watch The Favourite (but that’s what happens in Awards Season – there is often nothing else to watch). After Dogtooth and one further Greek film, Lanthimos moved into English language films with The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). He has maintained an Irish-UK production base and worked with a raft of high-profile actors including Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz, both of whom signed up for The Favourite.
The Favourite has a screenplay written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and it focuses on the triangular relationship between three women. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne the reigning British monarch between 1702 and 1714 and Rachel Weisz plays Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, one of the most powerful women in England and Anne’s companion since the two were young women. Now Sarah acts as Anne’s go-between on a daily basis, dealing with Parliament as ‘Keeper of the Privy Purse’ and generally supporting the monarch who is plagued by several afflictions (and who has lost 17 children through miscarriages, stillbirths and infant/child deaths). Anne and Sarah are very close – intimate in fact. In what is in some ways a conventional narrative structure, the ‘inciting incident’ is the sudden arrival of Sarah’s distant cousin Abigail (Emma Stone). Families then were very large and it was not unusual to have little knowledge of some of the large numbers of cousins. Abigail first works as a servant, having lost her status as a ‘lady’. But she is clever and soon she gains royal favour and begins her ascent to eventually rival Sarah.
The triangular relationship was also the basis for the stage play Queen Anne written by Helen Edmundson and first performed in 2015 and again in 2017. Although dealing with the same three characters and some of the same events, the play appears to take a different approach. Deborah Davis, a historian, first started work on her script for The Favourite in 1998 and found plenty of source material. It’s perhaps surprising then that the narrative ignores some of the major events and political discourses of the period. The central characters are all historical and the narrative itself is not that far from the historical record but the presentation of the events and their (lack of) background/context meant that I spent half the film trying to work out why the context was so confusing. It’s not a period I know well but I know enough to feel uncomfortable. I should note here that on this blog we have had some conflicting views about historical accuracy in recent films, especially in Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House and Amma Asante’s films Belle and A United Kingdom. But those films were attempting to comment on specific events which had great historical import. The Favourite is an ‘intimate comedy-drama’ with seemingly no interest in the period or its politics.
I can certainly see why Olivia Colman and Emma Stone were so keen to take on their roles. They both have great fun taking on the challenges of roles which push them through a wide range of physical actions and unusual situations and they are both very good and very entertaining. I think Rachel Weisz has a tougher gig as Sarah, the seemingly colder and harsher character who seemed to me conversely the more sympathetic. I think she is equally good but I expect the other two will get the nominations.
The triangular drama works effectively but I didn’t find the film particularly funny if that is what it is meant to be. (The comedy is mostly about eccentricity and silliness and posh people swearing – even though Anne’s life has had tragedy.) The film looks very handsome and when you sign up Sandy Powell as costume designer you always get a period piece which at least looks interesting. I’m less sure about Robbie Ryan’s cinematography. Usually I admire it, but here he seems to have been persuaded by his director to use an array of fish-eye and other distorting lenses – as if he was creating images for a 1970s prog-rock album cover (see the trailer below). Similarly, I didn’t much like the mix of various classical music pieces (from different time periods) coupled with some odd jarring sound effects. Lanthimos has said he wanted to make a film as much about ‘now’ as about the early 18th century. I don’t have a problem with the intention and moving away from traditional British realist period dramas is definitely no bad thing. I just didn’t enjoy the mix of ideas here. Robbie Ryan also shot Andrea Arnold’s controversial take on Wuthering Heights (UK 2011) and that worked well. Lanthimos has also stated his wish to make a statement to support the #MeToo movement by creating powerful female characters who are the centre of attention in roles that are often taken by men. Again, no problem with that. But what is the film really about? Is it any more than the rivalry of two cousins to become favourites of a Queen? What does Anne get from her relationships apart from enjoying the distraction from pain and loneliness? That does make a good drama but does it justify the high production values? How do these powerful women have an impact on the people and politics of ‘Great Britain’?
Let me just suggest a few of the things that happened during Anne’s reign that don’t appear in the film. The English army led by Marlborough is referred to as fighting ‘the French’. The war is treated as an English-French contest important mainly because of its cost. Queen Anne jokes about it as being like attending a party. It’s actually the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), a European War involving all the major states of Europe and a colonial war in which Britain fought France and Spain in North America. Marlborough was one of the two Allied commanders in Europe. Britain financed the allies and came out of the war as the major European maritime and commercial power, gaining important territories from Spain and France after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The other main event, in 1707, was the Act of Union between England and Scotland so what was originally an English army became a British army. Both these issues were underpinned by the struggle to confirm the Protestant dominance in Britain and to control the Catholics. Anne was raised as a Protestant but her father James II had been a Catholic. Differences between the two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, were also partially concerned with religious affiliation. None of these issues appear in the film. The film has Anne and Sarah meeting with both Whigs and Tories to debate and decide issues of financing the war and raising taxes. I’m not a constitutional historian but the scenes in the film strike me as unlikely given that Anne was deemed to be a ‘constitutional monarch’ not a monarch with absolute authority – she was the last British monarch to refuse to sign a parliamentary bill in 1707 (concerning the Scottish Militia).
The film was shot mainly in two locations, Hatfield House, home of the Cecil family, and Hampton Court Palace. Anne doesn’t go into London to Whitehall and Westminster and we never see any of her subjects except for the courtiers and servants. You may argue that none of this matters and I’m sure that most audiences, especially in North America but also probably in the UK, won’t have their enjoyment of the film spoiled in any way if they don’t know the background – even if this story is set only a few years after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Yes, a film about these three characters can work with only a very hazy notion of life at the start of the 18th century and there is nothing wrong with a personal drama about three women. But if Lanthimos wants to explore women as powerful characters whose activities have an impact on millions of lives, we do need to understand a little more about that society. I’m also amazed that the film never seemed to refer to Sarah as ‘Sarah Churchill’. Especially since the producers had previously made The Darkest Hour and Winston Churchill spent much of his time thinking about his celebrated ancestor as one of Britain’s “greatest military commanders”.
Playing an Elton John song over the closing credits (which are almost impossible to read) will either make or break the film according to taste.
When a film wins Oscars everyone writes about it. I’m not that bothered by Oscars but I’m glad that del Toro won something and I’m pleased the production design team got a gong. I loved the mix of songs in the film but I didn’t really notice the score – perhaps I will next time. Above all, however, I’m saddened that Sally Hawkins wasn’t rewarded. She is an extraordinary actor, capable of anything. I think that The Shape of Water is a love letter to cinema from a film lover who remembers the movies he watched with his grandmother. I’m not sure why The Story of Ruth (US 1960) is the film showing in the cinema when the creature stands in the stalls. It was a Fox film so the rights weren’t a problem. I’m assuming Guillermo saw it as a child. I watched Mr Ed on TV as a teenager so I was taken back too.
I guess most of you will know that the film is about a mute cleaner, Elisa Esposito (‘Esposito’ was originally a name given in Italy to abandoned children). She is looking for love and finds it with an amphibious man captured by US intelligence and threatened with vivisection in a search for ideas to prepare human physiology for the space race. 1962 is an interesting year to choose for the film’s time period. I’ve heard del Toro discussing why he chose it. At the height of the Cold War (the year of the Cuban missile crisis) and before the major breakthroughs on Civil Rights, those historical references are well used to underpin the narrative. The Cadillac showroom and the suburban family home reek of the immediate legacy of Eisenhower’s affluent, aspirational and conformist 1950s. The Cadillac also introduces teal as a key colour which emphasises the blue-green spectrum in the ‘facility’ where Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work as cleaners and where the creature (Doug Jones) is incarcerated. But I think that the selection of songs is the most intriguing. 1962 in the US is often considered to be in that dead period between the brief re-appearance of Elvis on his return from the army and the arrival of the Beatles in 1964. It wasn’t dead, but pop music wasn’t as dynamic and exciting as it had been and would soon become again. Pop music was for kids and The Shape of Water is for adults and especially for adults who feel they have lost out and for whom passion and romance seem better represented by the sound of Alice Faye in 1940s movies or Andy Williams as a ‘grown-up’ singer in 1959. Everything in the film seems to me to fit together perfectly. It’s a fantasy but it is perfectly coherent and ‘real’ in terms of its cultural references.
The classification for The Shape of Water is interesting. The US ‘R’ rating seems excessive to me but Guillermo del Toro has said that he wanted to make a film for adults. I was surprised by the film’s lack of prurience in showing a naked Sally Hawkins, but I’m sure she agreed to it because it is beautifully presented and completely in line with the character’s other actions. The film does have its moments of violence and I felt that the most violent actions were those with direct cultural references – such as the use of the electric cattle prod by Strickland (Michael Shannon) and arguably the most ‘difficult’ scene, the same character’s violence in making love to his wife. Perhaps an ‘R’ rating isn’t as excessive as I thought? On the other hand, the film has a ’15’ in the UK with 15/16 common across Europe (lower still in France) and the highest rating of 18 can be found in Russia and South Korea. I’m not sure what all of this means, except possibly that Guillermo del Toro has more of a European sensibility than a Hollywood one. I wish he’d make Spanish-language films again.
My constant referencing of del Toro doesn’t mean that I under-estimate the other creative contributions to the film. Vanessa Taylor was the co-writer and Dan Laustsen the cinematographer. All the design team deserve congratulations and Doug Jones and the VFX team create a wonderful creature based around the concept introduced in Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (US 1954). All these contributions are important but it is del Toro’s overall vision which holds the film together. I’ve no idea how the film is performing with younger audiences. Perhaps they prefer the fast action of superhero movies, but the slower pace of del Toro’s narratives is more to my taste.
I’m amazed to see that IMDb lists the estimated budget at $20 million. I would have guessed twice that amount (is it lower because there are no so-called ‘A list’ stars?). Even if it was $40 million, the film is heading for profit – and seemingly for an International Hit. North American box office has been less than stellar but overseas the film is starting to rack up good figures and it should reach at least $170 million in total worldwide. Another triumph for Canadian facilities I see, since the whole film was made in Ontario in 2016. Sally Hawkins must know quite a bit about filmmaking in Canada by now as she was in the Maritimes the year before shooting Maudie.
I realise that I haven’t acknowledged that The Shape of Water is a fantasy drama. I don’t like most pure fantasy films, but I love del Toro’s films because they speak about the ‘real world’ so elegantly.
The success of The Shape of Water has raised the possibility that Guillermo del Toro may be able to find a studio prepared to support him with the $35 – $40 million he needs to make his ‘darker’ version of Pinocchio set during the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s. It’s intended to be an animation for adults. It still seems unlikely that an American studio will come though with the money but it would be good if they did.
The introduction to this screening by co-director of the festival Allison Gardner suggested that “the film is very beautiful but difficult”. Which is actually quite a good description. It is visually very fine and it sounds good too – with several songs by Los Indios Tabajaras. (This was disconcerting because I recognised the music as being from the same performers who open and close Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (HK 1990)). I learned subsequently that the original Zama novel by Antonio di Benedetto, first published in 1956, was only translated into English in 2016 and is considered as one of the great works of Argentinian literature. In Lucrecia Martel, one of Argentina’s most celebrated filmmakers. it has found a new champion for an international audience.
Diego de Zama is a corregidor (a Spanish title for an agent of the King) in the 1790s in a remote part of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata in present day Paraguay. Zama feels trapped in a backwater and repeatedly asks the local Governor to write to Spain on his behalf to request a transfer. This becomes an endlessly repeated plea to the Governor who finds all kinds of excuses not to deliver. This perhaps is an indication of the ‘difficulty’ of the narrative as the process becomes something like that suffered by one of Kafka’s characters – or perhaps like Yossarian in Catch 22? “Have you written to the King?” becomes Zama’s mantra.
Zama has ‘status’ as a colonial figure (initially he appears to act as a magistrate) but no real discernible power except that conferred on a European by conquest. Martel presents the colonial world in a manner that is both terrifying and hypnotically beautiful. This is a film in which it pays to look and listen without trying too hard to find conventional film narrative cues as to what might happen next. The Kafkaesque world of the settlement in the first half of the narrative becomes the very beautiful but also terrifying world of the ‘unexplored’ territory where Zama finds himself supposedly searching for the possibly imaginary figure of a bandit/pirate. The only way I could make some kind of sense of what was happening in this second half was to draw on other similar films and stories. The closest parallel I could think of was another Argentinian film, Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (Argentina 2014) in which a Danish engineer working for the Argentinian colonial forces in the 19th century becomes similarly deranged in the ‘jungles’ of Patagonia while searching for the ‘pirate’ who has kidnapped his daughter.
After the screening I found that the best way to get a handle on Zama came via this review-essay on the original novel by J. M. Coetzee. Lucretia Martel has changed some aspects in her adaptation but the essentials remain and Coetzee’s review explains quite a lot of the background. I was pleased to see that my identification of Kafkaesque features is backed up. Some of the promotional material for the film suggests that this an ‘existential drama’ but Coetzee argues for Borges and Kafka as the inspirations for the 1950s novel. The other point from the review that intrigued me is the reference to Zama as a Creole character. From a UK perspective this can sometimes mean a mixed race person, but here it means that although Zama is ‘European’, he was born in the Americas and his status is therefore between the indigenous people and those born in Spain. He has relationships with indigenous women and also seeks out Spanish women, one of whom is played by Lola Dueñas. In British colonial terms he seems to have ‘gone native’. Spanish colonialism was perhaps less rigid – though no less harmful. Also important is the new ‘division’ in the colony between the new metropolitan centre, Buenos Aires and the ‘marginal’ colonial outposts.
I’m not sure how Zama will sell in the UK. It is due for release by New Wave, an excellent independent distributor, on May 25th. This is a film that is backed by many major figures in Hispanic and Latin American cinema. Lola Dueñas and Daniel Giménez Cacho (Spanish and Mexican respectively) have both worked for Pedro Almodóvar’s company El Deseo which is a production partner. Leading actors from Argentina and Brazil are in the cast and executive producers include Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna. But yes – it is a difficult film. I hope audiences are willing to grapple with it and experience its splendours as a piece of filmmaking and a genuine attempt to tell us something about the history of Latin America. I look forward to exploring the film later on DVD but please do go and see it in the cinema if you get the chance. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year so far.