- William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun.
Two bizarre new movies have just been released guaranteed to both shock and amuse even the most jaded and cynical Ebeneezer Scrooge - Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite and Adam McKay's Vice. They may be considered companion pieces in so far as both films employ broad satirical strokes and finely crafted badinage to rip off the surface veneer of polite decorum that normally shields in-house political and court intrigue from close inspection. Both also feature charismatic protagonists who get their kicks by sublimating their unconscious appetites into manipulating and frustrating the desires of the corrupt courtiers surrounding them, while blasting away at defenceless flying creatures with shotguns in their down time. That a three hundred year historical hiatus spearates them only serves to underline the eternal wisdom of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr's epigram - “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.”
Greek director Lanthimos' two previous movies - the brutal, minimalist, and semi-absurd Lobster and Sacred Deer - combined a searing visual style with an acerbic critique of modern society. His latest black comedy The Favourite is similarly acidic. It premiered at the 75th Venice International Film Festival, where it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize and Olivia Colman won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress. The AFI selected it as one of the top ten films of the 2018, it has received five Golden Globes nominations (including Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy), and emerged victorious at the BIF awards, winning a record ten gongs, including best British independent film and best actress. Colman, who got her big break with Broadchurch, puts in an uproarious bravura performance as the needy and emotionally wounded Queen Anne, making the jump to full blown movie star status with comparative ease.
The Favourite is essentially an extended verbal brawl, a bawdy black comedy of manners set in the British court of the early 18th-century, well before the idea of the royal family as picturesquely sentimental cemented itself securely into public consciousness during the reign of Queen Victoria. The narrative pivots around a dysfunctional political and sexual love triangle loosely based on the true story of Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, who vied for influence over Queen Anne with her impoverished cousin Abigail, Baroness Masham. Sarah was the direct ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill, who was born in Blenheim Palace (mentioned as being still unfinished in the movie), named after her father-in-law, and wrote an unflattering biography of her husband John, the first Duke Of Marlborough, before becoming Prime Minister himself. Filmed at a number of historic locations, such as Hampton Court Palace, Hatfield House, and Knole Park, this is the second collaboration of Lanthimos with Weisz and Colman, both of whom appeared in The Lobster. Kate Winslett was originally cast as Sarah, but dropped out and was replaced by Weisz, who has described the movie as "a funnier, sex-driven All About Eve.”
Five years after ascending to the throne upon William III's death in 1702, Anne became the first monarch of the new country called 'Great Britain,' when the Act of Union joined England together with Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. She ruled over a court redolent with the stink of political conspiracy and private treachery, thinly veiled behind a plethora of enormous perruques, tinkling harpsichords, and interminable galleries designed specifically for stamping down in hissy fits. Colman's character is a genuinely droll creation, a cross between Quentin Crisp's Queen Elizabeth in Sally Potter’s Orlando and Nursey in Blackadder, who frequently flies into a state halfway between an anxiety attack and apoplectic rage at the mere sight of other people enjoying themselves, largely due to her own self-hating inability to participate in such simple pleasures. When she isn't insulting her domestic lackeys, she sublimates the rest of her emotional energy into an eating disorder and maintaining a menagerie of rabbits in her bedroom. But there is also an air of authentic sadness in her portrayal of a physical and emotional invalid who was infantilised by a lifetime of manipulation and transported everywhere in wheelchairs. Anne endured seventeen pregnancies that resulted in twelve miscarriages and five live births. Her first two daughters died of smallpox as infants and Prince George, Duke of York, only lived to be ten years-old. Anne suffered in agony from debilitating attacks of gout and was carried around in a sedan chair only because she had genuine difficulty walking - unlike the quasi-Lady Bracknell character line in Alan Bennett's Forty Years On who asserted that “I can walk. It's just that I'm so rich I don't need to ...”
Rachel Weisz plays her court favourite Lady Sarah as a butch, gun-toting dominatrix, deploying every sly emotional manoeuvre in the book to keep Anne co-dependent and ready to raise taxes for an ongoing French war that will glorify her husband Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), much to the horror of parliamentary Leader of the Opposition Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult). Sarah's influence is supplanted, however, when her sexy young cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) appears at court and insinuates her way into the Queen's affections by alleviating her ailments wth medicinal herbs and a number of other, less savoury forms of seduction. Her majesty takes a shine to the attractive ingénue, as does the predatory aristocrat Lord Masham (Joe Alwyn). Intrigue abounds and liaisons are always dangerous, as a rapid succession of amorous advances and bizarre insults animate frequent and unexpected plot twists.
It has been suggested that Lanthimos was variously influenced by Milos Forman's Amadeus, but it was Peter Greenaway who first mapped out the same terrain in his relatively decorous The Draughtsman's Contract. Lanthimos injects a raucous and scabrous energy into Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara's cheerfully ribald screenplay, serrating it with an uninhibited and ragged edge where a more conventional director would have settled for the ripped bodices and lacy bonnets of more standard period fare. It takes a while to acclimatise to the rich profusion of visual and verbal rhetoric on display, made to appear even more unbalanced and off-kilter by the distortions of cinematographer Robbie Ryan's fish-eye lens. Stone's brief topless shot was not scripted and she had to convince Lanthimos to allow it by arguing that it would be more humiliating for Sarah to see Abigail naked, rather than just hidden beneath a bedsheet, and describing it as showing a “middle finger to Sarah.” Despite the stiff competition, Colman somehow manages to upstage both Stone and Weisz, presiding over this rambunctious post-Restoration romp with an air of barely disguised contempt.
Vice reunites director Adam McKay, actors Christian Bale and Steve Carell, and producer Brad Pitt, all of whom worked on the The Big Short, a pseudo-satire of Wall Street that conferred hero status on the few savvy financiers who managed to emerge from the 2008 crash ahead of the game. If Aaron Sorkin had written the screenplay, everyone would be cracking wise in non-stop, high velocity, and barely comprehensible doublespeak, but McKay’s dialogue is much more smoothly managed. An entire arsenal of alienation effects (incorporating stylised inserts, false endings, documentary footage, and voiceover commentary) is deployed with great aplomb, including a fantasy sequence in which Cheney and his formidable wife Lynne switch into a pseudo-Shakespearean mode of address, wryly commenting on the normally laconic nature of their everyday conversation. Mark Kermode summarised it neatly in his Guardian review as “a kind of PowerPoint biopic, with fourth-wall breaks and voiceover routines borrowed straight from Michael Moore.”
Like The Favourite, Vice is a nihilistic comedy of manners, with Christian Bale capturing precisely the baleful essence of the bloated Cheney, who squats inside the White House like a malignant toad infecting all those around him with his toxic venom. Habitually slouched, slumped, and round-shouldered, his bald and swollen head surmounting an ever-expanding stomach, Cheney is nonetheless depicted as a deftly adroit political mover and shaker who only becomes animated when snatching at a secret document or apricot cheese Danish. A loathsome and reptilian manipulator of the first order, he comes across as a deceptively mild-mannered and bespectacled Machiavelli. A youthful boozehound and Yale dropout, Cheney is soon chastised by Lynne in no uncertain terms. Chastened and repentant, he resolves to lay off the sauce, but his vast appetite is sublimated into food and an Ayn Randian will to power. He graduates to the paunch-plus-combover look while working for the Nixon administration as a bootlicking aide to the oleaginous Donald Rumsfeld, becomes Gerald Ford's Chief of Staff after Tricky Dick quits in disgrace, but only fattens up into the tub of lard in tasseled loafers loathed by liberals after being appointed Secretary for Defense by George Bush.
During the Clinton presidency, Cheney leveraged his contacts to become CEO of energy giant and defence contractor Halliburton, which later reaped immense profits after winning a non-bid contract during the occupation of Iraq. After the naive Bush Jr. revived his political fortunes by convincing him to become Vice President, Cheney made history reconfiguring what was traditionally an innocuous cheer-leading position into the effective power behind the throne. Somewhere along the way, he also evolved into an enthusiastic apologist for torture and waterboarding. He also shot 78 year-old Texas attorney Harry Whittington while participating in a quail hunt, an accident for which he never apologised, despite Whittington subsequently having a cardiac arrest due to the lead shot pellets that lodged in his chest. Although Cheney initially accepted his daughter Mary coming out as a lesbian and working as a gay rights campaigner, his final rejection of her for political reasons is typically curt and cruel.
Speaking of dicky tickers, it is hardly surprising that Cheney himself suffered from a long history of cardiovascular disease, having smoked three packs of cigarettes a day for nearly twenty years. He had his first of five heart attacks at age thirty-seven, underwent quadruple bypass grafting in 1988, coronary artery stenting in 2000, and a balloon angioplasty and implantation of a defibrillator in 2001. In 2005, he endured a six-hour surgical procedure to repair popliteal aneurysms, a catheter treatment technique used in the artery behind each knee. He was hospitalized for tests after experiencing shortness of breath five months later and in 2007 was treated for deep-vein thrombosis in his left leg. Two years later he strained his back and was confined to a wheelchair during the presidential inauguration in a manner strangely reminiscent of Queen Anne. In 2010, he experienced another mild heart attack and was outfitted with a left-ventricular assist device to compensate for worsening congestive heart failure. The centrifugal device pumped blood continuously through his body and as a result he remained alive without a pulse for nearly fifteen months. After being on a waiting list for over twenty months, he finally underwent a seven-hour heart transplant operation in 2012. In light of these constant medical problems, it is entirely understandable that Cheney never seemed entirely comfortable in his own body - less so, his total inability to experience any degree of emotional empathy or compassion for the suffering of others.
Bale captures Cheney's bland narcissism and inarticulate smugness pitch perfectly, especially when he suffers his first heart attack in the middle of a speech running as a totally uncharismatic Republican candidate for Congress in Wyoming. Cheney has been so rambling and incoherent that no one has any idea he has just had his first heart attack until he quietly calls for an ambulance. While he recuperates in hospital, Lynne emerges as his Lady Macbeth, campaigning among the cowpokes and ranch hands on his behalf. McKay never considered anyone else for the role, having been particularly impressed by Bale's uncanny ability to deconstruct and psychologically reassemble the characters he played - "The second I thought of doing the movie, I knew right away the most exciting person to play him is Christian." Bale shaved his head, bleached his eyebrows, and exercised to thicken his neck for his role as the constantly shrugging, grimacing, and frowning VP. He gained forty-five pounds with the help of a nutritionist, achieving the extra physical heft by existing on a diet that consisted mostly of meat pies.
McKay's demanding improvisational style allows his entire cast the space and freedom to create genuinely convincing characters. Bale has slowly learned over the years how to suggest more by doing much less. In order to ad-lib in character, he not only mastered Cheney's physical mannerisms and distracting verbal tics, but also memorised which policies and abbreviations he would be aware of at any given moment. Although McKay remained unsure whether to include it in the final cut, it was also Bale's idea to address the audience directly at the end of the film. They wrote the monologue together the day before shooting and McKay was so impressed by Bale's performance that he decided to keep it. Sam Rockwell's biggest physical challenge was nailing Dubya's weird "lip forward" method of speaking, requesting extra prosthetics to be built in his mouth, in addition to the artificial nose he wore throughout the movie. Adams remained in character throughout the shoot, not only by retaining Lynne's distinct voice throughout filming, but also engaging in heated political debates with the cast and crew. English character actors Eddie Marsan as Donald Wolfowitz and Alfred Molina as an obsequious waiter both put in brief and hilarious cameos.
There is a barbed sting inserted into the movie's tail, suggesting that the cynicism and greed of the Cheney years paved the way for America's decline into populist and xenophobic nationalism under Trump. The film also includes the watershed moment when Cheney instructed Senator Patrick Leahy to go fuck himself, but most of the time Cheney was an instinctively reclusive and restrained 'behind-the-scenes' operator, preferring to avoid the limelight while operating the levers of power in secret. After bringing Rumsfeld back into the White House, he insists on respecting its quiet decorum, while also acknowledging that “we have conservative TV and radio to do our yelling for us.” It is a sad indictment of contemporary American politics, illustrating just how far and how fast the current orange incumbent of the White House has upped the ante in terms of insulting vulgarity and general ignorance. For all his frigid malevolence - and however terrifying we may find 'enhanced interrogation techniques' and mass government surveillance - at least Cheney could read a policy document and recognise the consequences of implementing it without breaking into a temper tantrum whenever someone disagreed with him.