The Favourite (15)
Verdict: A right royal treat
The Favourite is set in the early 18th century, in the corrupt and debauched court of England’s Queen Anne, gloriously played by Olivia Colman, while the War of the Spanish Succession rages on the Continent. It is an absolute hoot.
We will soon be seeing Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in the Netflix series The Crown, but it’s safe to say this regal outing doesn’t give us much of a preview.
Her Anne bears more resemblance to another Elizabeth: Miranda Richardson’s Queenie in the TV sitcom Blackadder. She is childlike, tantrum-prone, full of self-pity, and in need of constant nurse-maiding at the hands of her lifelong but infinitely more glamorous and capable friend, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz).
Olivia Colman, right, plays Queen Anne, while Rachel Weisz is Sarah Churchill, left, in The Favourite
At the start of the film, Anne shows Sarah a model of the fabulous palace she is gifting 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. 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. And they are both matched by Emma Stone, summoning an impeccable English accent 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.
Emma Stone, pictured, plays Abigail Hill, an ambitious and conniving servant
‘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. Again and again, the women in this film get the better of the men. All the bawdiness (and the language gets extremely salty at times) would be entertaining enough, but it is given a raucous spin by director Yorgos 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 teetering wigs, powdered cheeks and fake beauty spots. The Greek director does not make ordinary films. His last two pictures, 2015’s The Lobster (which featured both Weisz and Colman) and last year’s The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, lurched between the whimsical and the downright weird.
The Favourite, too, contains plenty of whimsy. But it is comfortably his best yet; Lanthimos has an eye for the grotesque that suits overt comedy even better than it does quirky horror. He is aided here by a droll chamber-music score, and by Robbie Ryan’s clever cinematography, which sometimes uses a wide-angle lens to wreak further distortion on the film’s twisted characters. The framework of the story is entirely factual. Abigail Masham, as she later 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 and his writers also sprinkle the story with anachronisms, including a dance that is more Saturday Night Fever than House of Stuart, and all sorts of modern idioms. I’ll wager that nobody talked about committing ‘career suicide’ in the early 1700s.
There is great 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, both real and faked. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
Holmes & Watson (12A)
Verdict: The fattest turkey of the season
‘Tis the season for a big fat turkey, but most of us prefer the edible kind.
Here, alas, is one of the cinematic variety, an excruciating Sherlock Holmes spoof that so wastes the considerable comic talents of Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan, Ralph Fiennes and Hugh Laurie, among others, that it seems almost intentional, as if writer-director Etan Cohen had been set a challenge to do just that.
Ferrell and Reilly fill the title roles, and maybe the best that can be said of this bilge is that they have a conspicuous rapport, forged on those infinitely superior comedies Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby (2006), and Step Brothers (2008). Significantly, those two were directed and co-written by Adam McKay, who only has a producer credit here.
The excruciating Sherlock Holmes spoof wastes the considerable comic talents of Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan, Ralph Fiennes and Hugh Laurie
I hardly need detain you with the plot, which sees the famous Victorian detective and his sidekick working out how to foil a dastardly scheme by Professor Moriarty (Fiennes) to kill Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris). That sets up a number of set-piece sequences, each of which seems more laboured and unfunny than the last.
Heaven knows why performers of the calibre of Coogan and Brydon signed up even for walk-on parts in this project. The only truly laughable thing about it is Ferrell’s English accent.
All that said, you really didn’t have to be the fellow in the deerstalker with the Baker Street address to identify in advance the clues as to just how bad Holmes & Watson is.
When even a movie’s trailer makes it look terrible, as this one’s did, then you usually know what’s in store. And we critics had an extra clue: there were no advance screenings, which is invariably a sign that the distributor, knowing the film is a dud, doesn’t want the box-office take damaged by negative reviews.
Instead, I trudged off to the Wimbledon Odeon on Boxing Day afternoon, with low expectations that were squarely met. Inside, I counted six laughs and three walk-outs. That it wasn’t the other way round seemed like a proper Christmas miracle.
Buckle up for a bumper year on the big screen
First, the not-so-good news; there will be as many humdrum sequels and remakes as ever in 2019, not to mention formula-driven superhero and sci-fi movies, writes Brian Viner. But now the great news; there are also some real corkers to look out for next year.
A few of them, such as Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Sisters Brothers and Stan And Ollie, I’ve been lucky enough to see already. Others come with a lot of industry buzz.
I have deliberately omitted most of the mega-budget superhero and sci-fi blockbusters; this is not a list of films likely to make the biggest impact at the global box- office. But I think it contains something for everyone. Happy New Year!
CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
Melissa McCarthy won fame as a comic actress in films such as Bridesmaids, but you’ve never seen her like this before, playing a lonely, embittered and impoverished writer of biographies called Lee Israel. It’s a true story; in the early Nineties, to make ends meet, Israel started forging letters from the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward, then brazenly sold them to collectors. Eventually the FBI caught up with her. But this is not just the story of a literary hoax, it’s also a riveting character study. McCarthy, absolutely superb in the role, must have a decent chance of an Oscar nomination. (February)
I’ve swerved most of the 2019 superhero output for fear of making you (and myself) yawn. But this one, the 21st in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, should be worth seeing. Coincidentally, the rival DC stable are also releasing a movie next year about their own version of Captain Marvel, whose name was changed to avoid confusion (and law suits) to Shazam. That is also the title of the DC film. But their Captain Marvel is a man, whereas this one, more intriguingly, is female. The ever-excellent Brie Larson takes the title role, as fighter pilot Carol Danvers who accidentally acquires superhuman strength. (March)
You might have thought you’d seen beetle-browed Mr Carson ladling up mock turtle soup to the dowager Duchess of Grantham for the final time, but no, they’re all back for the movie version, reportedly set shortly after the last series ended in the mid-Twenties. Which is a bit of a shame. It would have been interesting to see them leap forward a generation or two and confront plans to turn Downton Abbey into a theme park.
Some would say it is already, but who would bet against writer Julian Fellowes pulling off another commercial hit? (September)
Michelle Dockery, pictured, reprises her role as Lady Mary in Downton Abbey which hits the big screen this September
THE LION KING
If 2019 is the year of anything, movie-wise, it’s the year of live-action or computer-animated remakes of cartoon classics. Dumbo (directed by Tim Burton) and Aladdin (directed by Guy Ritchie) are getting the live-action treatment, but if like me you have a real soft spot for the story of The Lion King, this computer-animated version (pictured) should be a real treat. A starry voice cast includes Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, with Chiwetel Ejiofor as the treacherous Scar, and Beyonce as Nala. The mighty James Earl Jones, now 87, voices Mufasa, just as he did in the glorious 1994 animation. Jon Favreau directs, having made a fine job of 2016’s The Jungle Book. (July)
Set in the Sixties, Green Book tells the story of an unlikely duo, a black jazz pianist (Mahershala Ali) and his Italian-American driver and bodyguard (Viggo Mortensen), as they travel around a Deep South riven with race hatred. Billed as a gentle comedy drama, it came out in the U.S. last month to rhapsodic reviews and is among the favourites to win a Best Picture gong in the forthcoming Golden Globes. The director and co-writer is Peter Farrelly, who also made Dumb And Dumber, but don’t let that put you off. (February)
Donna Tartt’s thumping, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel finally makes it to the big screen, with Baby Driver star Ansel Elgort as Theo Decker, a young man whose mother was killed by a terrorist bomb while they were visiting New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Promisingly, the director is Irishman John Crowley, whose 2015 film Brooklyn was such a delight. Nicole Kidman co-stars. (October)
MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS
Saiorse Ronan, one of the most compelling and versatile actresses of her generation, might seem young at 24 to play the ill-fated Mary Stuart — who was well into her 40s when she was executed.
But this film (with Margot Robbie as Mary’s prickly cousin, Elizabeth I of England) focuses on the earlier years of her reign, brilliantly dramatising the political intrigue that eventually got the better of a woman who wasn’t averse to a spot of chicanery herself. The screenplay is by a man who is well-versed in political backstabbing: Beau Willimon, who wrote the U.S. version of House Of Cards. (January)
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
In one of next year’s most anticipated movies, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate, the most famous victim of the crazed Manson gang. A fantastic cast also includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Al Pacino, with Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen. The film is not specifically about the 1969 Manson murders, but focuses on Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), a fading TV star who lives next door to Tate and husband Roman Polanski. Pitt plays Rick’s long-serving stunt double. A footnote: this is the first of Tarantino’s films not to be produced by the disgraced Harvey Weinstein. (July)
Margot Robbie, pictured, plays Sharon Tate in this Quentin Tarantino movie which is the first not to be produced by Harvey Weinstein
THE SISTERS BROTHERS
Charlie and Eli Sisters, wonderfully played by Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly, are professional assassins in 1850s Oregon. They work for a man we know only as The Commodore, who has hired them to kill a gold prospector called Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed).
A detective played by Jake Gyllenhaal gets the job of finding Warm until they’re ready for the kill. That’s the essence of Jacques Audiard’s meandering yet riveting adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s novel, but the beauty of it lies in the period detail — like Eli using a newfangled toothbrush for the first time.
The acting is superb all round, but Reilly steals the show. (April)
STAN AND OLLIE
John C. Reilly is having a moment, as they put it in movie circles. He plays Oliver Hardy to Steve Coogan’s Stan Laurel in this immensely charming, sweet, funny but also rather melancholic account of the famous double act’s tour of Britain in 1953, the last time that the duo worked together.
Reilly deservedly has a Golden Globe nomination to show for his perfectly-judged portrayal of Ollie, but Coogan is terrific too, and look out for Nina Arianda as Stan’s feisty Russian wife, Ida. She’s not a professional comic, but she’s the biggest hoot of the lot. (January)
No sooner has he played one British legend, in this year’s disappointing Robin Hood, than Taron Egerton gets to play another, Elton John. Reportedly, the great man himself fancied Justin Timberlake, but not even Sir Elton gets everything he wants.
The film, which has been described as a ‘fantasy- musical’ and charts John’s path along the yellow brick road to stardom, features Jamie Bell as his lyricist Bernie Taupin. Dexter Fletcher, who ended up taking charge of the recent Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, directs. (May)
STAR WARS EPISODE IX
Here, at long last, comes the ninth and final act in the main Star Wars franchise, though there will doubtless be further spin-offs for decades to come. J.J. Abrams wields the directorial lightsaber again, having made a great job of his last Star Wars movie, 2015’s The Force Awakens. Thanks to unused footage from that film, we can apparently expect the late Carrie Fisher to pop up one last time, as General (formerly Princess) Leia Organa. (December)
TOY STORY 4
We can look forward to Frozen 2 and Shaun the Sheep 2 in 2019, but this will be the animated sequel of the year, at least if the brilliant Toy Story 3 is anything to go by. Almost a decade has passed since that work of genius, and the delightful original movie came out in 1995, so nobody can accuse those clever people at Pixar of exactly exploiting our affection for Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear and friends.
They’re all back in this one, voiced again by Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and co, and we are promised a ‘road-trip adventure’. I, for one, can’t wait. (June)
The Irish actress and singer Jessie Buckley first burst into the limelight ten years ago, in the BBC talent show I’d Do Anything. Since then, without quite becoming a star, she has been quietly making a name for herself.
Wild Rose — directed by Tom Harper, who also worked with Buckley on the TV version of War And Peace — is the perfect vehicle for her abundant talent.
She plays a rascally, promiscuous, self-centred Glaswegian, blessed with a wonderful singing voice, who after getting out of prison pursues her burning ambition to go to Nashville and conquer the home of country music. Wild Rose is next year’s A Star Is Born — only better. (April)
THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW
Accomplished British director Joe Wright (Atonement, Darkest Hour), and a wonderful cast including Amy Adams, Julianne Moore and Gary Oldman, ought to be recommendation enough for this psychological thriller adapted, from A.J. Finn’s bestselling novel, by the American playwright and actor Tracy Letts.
Hitchcock fans will recognise the nods to both Rear Window and Vertigo in the story of a housebound child psychologist living unhappily in New York City, who witnesses a crime while spying on her new neighbours. (September)
The Vulture… Mail critics’ pick the week’s must see events
The Manchester quartet Everything Everything and Bedford singer Tom Grennan will see in 2019 at a marathon New Year’s Eve party in Manchester on Monday. Grennan’s debut album Lighting Matches was a Top Five hit, while Everything Everything have edged away from indie-rock towards synth-pop. The show, put together by organisers of the Lake District’s Kendal Calling festival, runs from 7pm to 2am.
Everything Everything and Bedford singer Tom Grennan will see in 2019 at a marathon New Year’s Eve party in Manchester on Monday
Idris Elba explodes back onto our screens as DCI John Luther in a new, four-part case, showing over consecutive nights. It’s a grisly affair as a deranged serial killer stalks the mean streets of London. Does psychiatrist Vivien Lake (Hermione Norris) know more than she is letting on? And stay tuned to the end for the return of an old friend . . .
New Year’s Day, 9pm, BBC1.
Idris Elba explodes back onto our screens as DCI John Luther in a new, four-part case, showing over consecutive nights
GUYS AND DOLLS
Everything you need is at the Mill At Sonning. River walk, pre-theatre meal and a cheerful musical in the shape of Frank Loesser’s gambling yarn. Richard Carson is Sky Masterson who bets Nathan Detroit (Stephane Anelli) he can take Salvation Army puritan Sarah Brown (Victoria Serra, above, with Carson) on a dinner date.
Until February 23, The Mill At Sonning, Sonning Eye, Reading RG4 6TY (0118 9698000/millatsonning.com).
Victoria Serra, pictured with Richard Carson appear in Guys and Dolls until February 23 in The Mill At Sonning, Sonning Eye, Reading
I AM ASHURBANIPAL . . .
Ashurbanipal ruled much of the Middle East from Nineveh, destroyed shortly after his death around 631 BC. The surviving treasures — including, amazingly, a letter from 13-year-old Ashurbanipal himself — are in the British Museum and brought to life in a magnificent exhibition.
Until February 24.
Ashurbanipal ruled much of the Middle East from Nineveh, destroyed shortly after his death around 631 BC. The surviving treasures — including, amazingly, a letter from 13-year-old Ashurbanipal himself — are in the British Museum and brought to life in a magnificent exhibition