We all love to get our way. It’s fulfilling when we see our wishes come to fruition, often leaving us with a warm, satisfied glow inside. But how we get there can be challenging, especially if we find ourselves pushing too hard to see the desired result realized. So it is with a beleaguered monarch and her two closest but contentious advisors in the new period piece dark comedy, “The Favourite” (web site, trailer).
In 18th Century England, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules – or attempts to rule – her empire in the face of many public and personal challenges. Officially speaking, the capricious, tempestuous monarch is charged with overseeing the country’s war efforts against pesky continentals (most notably the French), although she’s often clueless as to the status of the conflict. She’s also responsible for figuring out how to pay for the military campaign, a quandary that frequently embroils her in the midst of an ongoing battle between opposing forces in Parliament pitting the ruling Tories, led by Lord Godolphin (James Smith), against the power-seeking Whigs, under the stewardship of Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult). And she must contend with the ire of the land-owning gentry, who rail at attempts to raise taxes to raise revenue for the war effort. It’s a lot to handle for someone who’s easily befuddled and more interested in indulging her self-indulgent whims than addressing the affairs of state.
Personally, the Queen has more than a full plate of issues. Her health is failing in many ways, a problem that has been unfolding both physically and psychologically for years. She’s also lonesome, given that she’s been widowed and has suffered the deaths of 17 children lost through miscarriages, stillbirths and various forms of early demise. And, when she doesn’t get her way, even in the simplest of matters, she often flies into a hysterical, uncontrollable rage, followed by bouts of prolonged, inconsolable whimpering.
Fortunately, Her Majesty is not without sources of comfort. Her doting, ever-attendant companion, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), is constantly by her side, offering reassurance and guidance, even if providing such comfort means being less than truthful. In return for such “kindness,” the Queen rewards her confidante handsomely, both in her personal affairs and the public agendas she clandestinely seeks to promote (or, more precisely, seeks to skillfully manipulate into being). And, most of the time, the Queen falls for her companion’s carefully orchestrated schemes.
Things begin to change, however, with the arrival of a young woman seeking employment at the palace, Abigail (Emma Stone). As a distant relative of Lady Sarah, Abigail hopes her connection will help her land a position in the royal household. Abigail believes that such a new station will help her restore the aristocratic standing she held before her father “lost her” on a bet, an event that thrust her into a life of servitude and degradation. Fortunately, her connection to Lady Sarah helps her secure a position, though, as part of the kitchen help, it’s far from what she had hoped for. But, despite this setback, Abigail is not ready to give up just yet.
When the Queen becomes ill with painful leg sores, Abigail draws upon her knowledge of healing remedies to help out. She takes it upon herself to collect herbs from the nearby forest to make a balm that she applies to the monarch’s lesions while she sleeps. Although her actions are seen as somewhat presumptive by Lady Sarah, Abigail’s initiative pleases the Queen, something that gets the new arrival promoted to the position of the monarch’s personal maid. As Anne and Abigail get to know one another, the servant becomes a confidante whose influence rivals that of Lady Sarah, something that notably perturbs the advisor who believes she has exclusive access to Her Majesty’s ear. And, quite understandably, she resents it, her anger seething ever more with each passing day.
Of course, Abigail’s newfound standing carries a cost. With her influence with the Queen rising, Lord Harley seeks to take advantage of this development by recruiting Abigail into his ranks. He strong-arms her into using her clout to spy on and curry favor with Her Majesty, specifically when it comes to his legislative agenda. At the same time, though, Abigail wants something in return. She seeks to further the restoration of her standing by courting an available suitor, an influential military man, Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), a romance that both Lord Harley and the Queen help to facilitate. And, the more Abigail’s star rises, the more it grinds away at Lady Sarah, who helplessly stands by and watches her influence wane. By now the game is clearly afoot as both Lady Sarah and Abigail each seek to be crowned “the favourite.”
So, with everyone conniving to get his or her way, who will come out on top? Well, under most circumstances like this, and at the risk of playing spoiler, the answer typically would be no one. But, as the schemings grow ever more complicated – and nasty – the stakes get raised for all concerned. Still, is such an aggressive, no-holds-barred approach the best course? Yet, when we feel compelled to see our plans through, how many of us would be willing to back down? And, even if we do get our way, is it realistic to believe that there won’t be consequences of our actions? There’s even the possibility of a karmic element working its way into the process as what goes around clearly comes around.
When we focus our beliefs and attention exclusively on results with no consideration for the consequences, we unwittingly engage in a perilous course of seeking the fulfillment of our goals. And all of the protagonists in “The Favourite” are on this path, whether or not they realize it. For their sake, we can only hope they weather the storms they’re brewing for themselves. It’s a dark course they’ve charted, one that’s sure to lead to comeuppance at best, tragedy at worst, and the cautionary tale presented here should give us all food for thought.
Nevertheless, none of this is meant to suggest that this picture is a depressing tragedy. To the contrary, “The Favourite” is a hilarious romp from start to finish. This wickedly dark, smug period piece comedy is sure to leave viewers routinely agasp at its outrageous humor, which marvelously mixes understatement with in-your-face bawdiness. The three protagonists, brilliantly portrayed by Colman, Stone and Weisz, never disappoint, with each at the top of their game. The film’s smartly written script is crisp and snappy throughout, even if it takes liberties with history and occasionally falls back on director Yorgos Lanthimos’s signature penchant for needless ambiguity. Not everyone will go for this one, though; if you’re easily offended by raucous, ribald humor, this offering is not for you. But, if you enjoy such material, you’ll love this release. Think of it as a mix of the cattiest moments from Dynasty dressed up in 18th Century trappings, and you’ve got an idea what “The Favourite” is all about.
This film is hauling in a boatload of recognition in this year’s awards competitions. In the upcoming Golden Globe Awards contest, “The Favourite” earned five nominations, including best comedy film, best screenplay and acting nods for all three protagonists (Colman in the lead category and Stone and Weisz for their supporting roles), all of whom also earned corresponding recognition in the Screen Actors Guild’s awards program. Among the Independent Spirit Award nominees, the picture earned a nod for best international film. And, in the Critics Choice Awards, the film took in a whopping 14 nominations, including nods for best picture, comedy, director, original screenplay, acting ensemble, and the performances of Colman, Stone and Weisz. There are sure to be more accolades to come where this film is concerned.
When our plans go awry, there may be a natural tendency to throw a tantrum or take the bull by the horns to get what we want. But, as good as such venting might feel in the moment, does it really bring us any closer to attaining what we seek? That’s certainly debatable, and the experiences of those in this film would seem to bear that out. So have faith that things will go our way at some point or another. And giddily relish the results when they make their presence felt.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Combating the Perils of Addiction
The hell of drug addiction wears heavily on those afflicted by it. The physical and psychological effects alone can be devastating, but all of the other related effects – socially, economically and otherwise – can be just as destructive. And, when the impact on those close to an addict is added into the mix, the result can be just as catastrophic (and in virtually all of the same respects). So it is with a family dealing with such a crisis in the gripping and moving new drama, “Ben Is Back” (web site; trailer).
Nineteen-year-old Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) wants to spend Christmas with his family, but there’s just one problem – he needs to get approval to visit them from the rehab program where he’s enrolled to treat his drug addiction. He’s made progress at getting better, but he’s only been in treatment for a few months, and his counselors aren’t sure if he’s ready to go back to where his problem arose. The ghosts of his past, as well as the omnipresent threat of temptation, could derail his efforts and lead to a backslide. But, despite the risk, he makes the journey home to see his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), his stepdad, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), his sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), and his step-siblings, Lacey (Mia Fowler) and Liam (Jakari Fraser). He also looks forward to seeing his pet dog, Ponce (Nigel the dog), who saved Ben’s life by finding him when he overdosed and nearly died, the event that led to his stint in rehab.
Needless to say, the family is surprised by Ben’s unexpected visit. Holly, Lacey and Liam are thrilled to see him, as is Ponce. Neal and Ivy, however, have their doubts. And, as Ben’s past is gradually revealed during his stay, they’re justified in their skepticism. Even though he’s receiving treatment, his track record of behavior before he entered rehab was quite checkered. As both a user and a dealer, he dragged many others into his dark world, in some cases with catastrophic consequences. It’s no wonder that his sister and stepdad have their doubts.
Outwardly, Holly is happy to have her son home, and she tries to put a cheery face on the situation. But, despite the appearance of unconditional motherly love and boundless support, she’s no fool, either. She knows full well what Ben is capable of, and, when she needs to take a hard stand with him, she knows what to do. Such behavior surfaces after a heated discussion with Neal, who strongly disapproves of Ben’s visit and wants to return him to his treatment facility. So, after Holly and Neal agree to a compromise of a 24-hour stay, she promptly lays down the law about the conditions of Ben’s stay. Her direct, no-nonsense explanation is full of strings, including a drug test, never leaving her sight and facing an immediate return to rehab for any violation of her terms.
To feel as though he’s fully engaged as part of the family’s holiday celebration, Ben asks Holly if she could take him Christmas shopping at the local mall, to which she agrees. However, while there, Ben encounters two old acquaintances from his drug days, as well as the physician (Jack Davidson) who, in prescribing painkillers to treat a 14-year-old Ben for a snowboarding injury, launched him into his life of addiction.
The stress of these incidents is so overwhelming that Ben insists Holly take him to a local Narcotics Anonymous meeting to help ground himself. The gathering provides some comfort, but it also leads to another difficult encounter with a young woman (Alexandra Park) who’s planning to get clean but who wants to get high one last time, an invitation she extends to Ben. He’s curious why she would ask him, of all people, to join her for this, a response that surprises her, particularly when she reminds him that he used to be her dealer, something he completely forgot.
By now, it’s apparent that going home might not have been a good decision after all. What’s more, the incident at the N.A. meeting raises Holly’s doubts, seriously stretching her trust that Ben is genuinely able to keep his word. She subsequently tightens the leash, insisting that he follow her dictates to the letter, including her requirement that he join the family in attending a Christmas Eve church service where Ivy will be a featured soloist and Lacey and Liam will participate in a nativity pageant. It’s an experience that, fortunately, provides Ben with some much-needed solace after such a rough day. But the peace of the season is shattered when the family returns home from church to find their house ransacked – and Ponce missing.
After a thorough search of the home, it doesn’t appear that anything was stolen, but Ponce’s disappearance is out of character for the otherwise-well-behaved pooch. Ben concludes that the dog was taken, most likely by someone from his past who knows he’s back in town, a gesture meant to send a message. And, given that Ponce was the one who found Ben when he nearly died, the choice of taking the family pet now was meant to hit him where it hurts most. Upon this realization, Ben storms off to find the dog that he and the rest of the family so lovingly adore.
Of course, by leaving, Ben violates the conditions of his stay, so Holly goes after him in hot pursuit. When she finds him, he tries to send her away, contending that, as well as she thinks she knows him, she doesn’t really know him at all – and everything that he was capable of in his past. Holly hangs tough, though, vowing to help Ben in his search to find out who took the dog. Thus begins a descent into the world of Ben’s past. This journey into the seamy drug underworld includes encounters with one of Ben’s former (and highly unscrupulous) high school teachers (Henry Stram), the parents of one of his deceased clients (Rachel Bay Jones, Jeff Auer), one of his former junkie cohorts (David Zaldivar) and a notorious kingpin pusher (Michael Esper), the most likely candidate for having abducted Ponce. And, as this scenario plays out, it appears that getting the dog back will require a Herculean effort – for both Ben and Holly – a task that carries risks for success and their very survival.
This gripping film, which effectively combines a family drama with an edgy deep dive into a sinister subculture, reveals what it means to try and come back from a life and legacy fraught with baggage that won’t let go, even in the face of seeking redemption. For Ben, it requires walking a tightrope of seeking forgiveness while trying to let go of guilt, changing his dubious behavior, and fighting off the constant temptation that could easily undo all of his hard work to get clean and make amends. For those who care for him, it also requires traversing a high wire of being lovingly supportive yet skeptically vigilant, far from an easy balance to strike. And, no matter how hard everyone works at these issues, there’s always the threat that outside forces could interfere to undermine, or even negate, whatever progress has been made. It’s a challenge most of us would likely want to avoid at all costs.
Nevertheless, these are the circumstances in which the principals find themselves, and, if they ever hope to change them, they must do their best to cope with and seek resolution to the conditions they now face. It won’t be easy, but, considering the situation in which they find themselves, that comes with the territory. How well they succeed – if at all – depends on their resolve to see things through, to realize that change is possible, even if difficult to achieve.
After seeing “Ben Is Back”, I couldn’t help but wonder why it’s being ignored (and, in some cases, unfairly bashed) by critics. Director Peter Hedges’s latest is easily one of the best offerings of the year, featuring a well-integrated fusion of family saga and thriller. Roberts and Hedges turn in knock-out performances worthy of awards consideration for their range of emotion and powerful delivery, and the picture’s well-crafted screenplay serves up an excellent mix of heartfelt emotion, gritty intensity, shocking revelation, pointed comic relief and deftly nuanced subtlety. Sadly, this appears to be one of those releases that’s simply going to be overlooked for honors and accolades, and that’s truly unfortunate, as this is quite an unexpected gem.
Two other points are worth mentioning. First, there have been a number of comparisons between this release and another offering about teenage drug addiction, “Beautiful Boy,” which was released earlier this fall. Some have tried to claim that “Ben Is Back” is a little more than a knock-off of its predecessor, but that’s a highly unfair comparison. True, both films deal with the same subject matter, but that’s about where the similarities end. “Beautiful Boy” is based on a true story, while “Ben Is Back” is a work of fiction. In addition, the former deals almost exclusively with the protagonist’s recurring stints in rehab over time and his parents’ attempts to get their son clean, while the latter is set over a compressed time frame and addresses all of the fallout that can accompany drug addiction beyond the obvious physical and psychological health considerations. Trying to say that these films are copycats of one another is simply a lazy comparison.
Moreover, this is the second role in as many months featuring Hedges as a teen in crisis, the first having been “Boy Erased” about the gay son of a fundamentalist preacher who undergoes conversion therapy in an attempt to turn straight. The young actor has earned considerable praise for that portrayal, including a Golden Globe Award nomination for best male performance in a drama. However, as good as Hedges is in that film, his work here is arguably even better, given that he’s required to show a greater range of emotion and to engage in a wider array of actions and activities. While his performance in “Boy Erased” is certainly noteworthy, it’s unfortunate that his portrayal here isn’t receiving commensurate recognition.
When someone goes through, or attempts to recover, from the debilitating effects of drug addiction, the challenges in getting clean can at times be seemingly insurmountable. The possibility of everything unraveling, even in the face of progress, always looms in the background. But then there’s also the possibility of hope, that matters can be worked out and restored to what existed before such ordeals arose. This truly is one of those situations where those affected need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. But, with the right support, lots of love and a stern resolve, circumstances can be rectified. For all of those going through such suffering, be it directly or on the sidelines, we wish you every success.
A complete review will appear in the near future by clicking here.
In Case You Missed It…
In case you missed the latest edition of Movies with Meaning on The Good Media Network’s Frankiesense & More broadcast, you can now check it out on demand. Join host Frankie Picasso and yours truly for a full hour of movie chat, with reviews of “Green Book”, “At Eternity’s Gate”, “The Front Runner”, “The Favourite”, “Maria by Callas” and “Roma.” We’ll also take sneak peeks at releases yet to come, including “Vice”, “If Beale Street Could Talk”, “Mary Poppins Returns”, “Mary Queen of Scots”, “Ben Is Back”, “Vox Lux”, “The Mule”, “Welcome to Marwen”, “On the Basis of Sex”, “Stan and Ollie” and “Head Full of Honey.” For the video version, tune in on Facebook Live by clicking here. And, for the audio-only podcast edition, check out The Good Media Network’s home page by clicking here. Join us for a Santa’s bag full of fun movie chat!
Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.