The 2018 Awards Season is upon us and The Favourite and Vice are two frontrunners in a strange, if not entirely uncompelling, year. Both films are cynical looks at the effects and draws of power, one set in 18th century England and one in 21st century Washington, D.C. Both are entertaining, well-constructed films made by A-list directors (Yorgos Lanthimos and Adam McKay, respectively) and designed to skewer everyone in their wake.
The Favourite tracks the Machiavellian ascent of Emma Stone’s Abigail, a disgraced noblewoman forced into the lowly station of cleaning the floors of the castle of Queen Anne and bunking with a dozen other servants in tiny, ill-maintained quarters. Lanthimos never quite gives us a glimpse into Abigail’s mind in the early goings of the film, instead giving us sympathetic (if select) vignettes. Abigail’s own father sold her off, she’s harassed and pushed into the mud, and another servant tortures her gleefully. It’s a tough and endearing start for Abigail, so much so that you root for her as she begins making moves to improve her station, soon enough receiving her own quarters and the tepid favor of her cousin, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz).
Sarah is a tough nut to crack: she’s power hungry but unflinchingly patriotic, she’s cold but not entirely uncompromising, and her love for the queen appears to be completely genuine, even as she uses it frequently for her gain. She’s a political schemer, but not in the backroom way that her cousin proves to be. Indeed, she’s woefully unprepared for the way that Abigail weasels her way into the queen’s favor. Sarah’s schemes are blunt force traumas: she shoots a gun above her cousin’s head as a warning shot, thinking it will scare her straight. Undeterred, Abigail (armed with knowledge of the illicit affair between Queen Anne and her adviser) begins flirting with the queen herself. As Sarah’s attentions are focused on managing the war the country finds itself in, the queen sleeps with Abigail, in part to make Sarah jealous. From there, Abigail increases her foothold and edges her rival out, going so far as to poison Sarah and eventually have her exiled.
The maneuvering between Sarah and Abigail is fun to watch, but Olivia Colman steals the film as Queen Anne. We’re told very early on that this isn’t the Austenian costume drama that Keira Knightley might star in. The movie keeps its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, showing absurdly out of place dances and filming duck races as if they were a Zack Snyder set piece. The subversion is mostly wildly entertaining, if a bit callous at times. The movie spares most of its sympathy for Queen Anne, the frail and temperamental epicenter. Anne is emotionally shattered: she has 17 bunnies because she had 17 children, none of which survived infancy. She’s radically unqualified for her job, confused by even the slightest mention of military strategy. Though her character is another subversion (of the oft-portrayed dashing monarchy), her story is a tragic one. In the manic final sequence, just after Anne witnesses Abigail’s unbridled cruelty, Anne realizes that she is all alone, having sent her one confidant away. Her power, unearned and likely unwanted, and her bunnies are her last refuges.
The Favourite is an excellent work of satire and, if it leaves you a bit frigid in the third act, it does so willingly. Vice is frigid all the way through, though Christian Bale plays Dick Cheney with a bit of unexpected warmth that opens the audience’s pores for the torrent of frenetic montages and Shakespearean dialogue that fly at you at impossible speeds. Vice isn’t a biopic (and it tells you that upfront) so much as it is an attempt to take what we know about an unknowable man and dramatize the rest. The movie opens with Dick Cheney running the show in The Situation Room on 9/11. While everyone else was afraid, Cheney saw opportunity for himself, the movie tells us.
The movie goes back to Cheney’s early life from there, essentially making a play following his troubled early years to his slow rise to power. In an early scene, Amy Adams’ Lynne Cheney dresses her then-fiance down, threatening to leave him if he doesn’t make something of himself. This is played as the thesis of the film, Cheney’s motivation for acquiring power. Of course, the postulation that a lecture from his fiance would take him from drunk ne’er-do-well to the most powerful man on the planet is…a little thin. But even if that moment doesn’t ring as loudly as it’s supposed to, the family stuff is generally quite excellent. Cheney is shown to be an absolutely doting husband and father throughout most of the film, always affectionate to Lynne and immediately accepting when his youngest daughter comes out to the two of them. This is in direct contrast to his war-hawk policies, played in effective (if ham-fisted) sequences that show him enjoying leisurely activities with his family while the results of his policies play out overseas.
The performances in Vice are really, really good, starting and ending with the transformative Bale. Bale sinks into Cheney’s skin (after gaining more than 40 pounds for the role) and delivers a quiet but terrific performance throughout. If anything, the movie’s bonkers montages sometimes take away from Bale’s gravitas, including one of the final sequences that manically intercuts his heart surgery with a series of frenetic images with a quiet moment intended to demonstrate Bale’s betraying of his family. It’s a great scene, but this reader thinks it would have been more effective if it were played as a quiet moment focused on Bale’s performance rather than the deafening sequence.
Of course, Vice is a polarizing movie, but it’s polarizing even from scene to scene. Some of McKay’s risks (i.e. the Shakespearean bedroom scene) fell flat in my theater whereas others (cutting to the credits halfway through the film) played quite well. Cheney’s relationship with mentor Donald Rumsfeld (played by Steve Carrell) is a standout, and it includes an excellent scene where Cheney selects his political party. Sam Rockwell is wonderful as George W. Bush, even if his role is a bit of a sideshow.
There’s an underlying cynicism in McKay’s movie and it’s not exclusively focused on our leadership. In an after-credits scene that cuts back to a focus group that we’ve seen earlier in the movie, a man in a football jersey shouts this movie is too liberal. He yells and hollers while a liberal man calmly reasons with him. When the man in the jersey assaults the calm, intelligent liberal, an oblivious young woman turns and declares her excitement about the new Fast and Furious movie. It’s a sequence that’s played for laughs, but it’s a pretty unsettling look at America through McKay’s lens. Republicans are dumb and unwilling to reason with calm, intelligent liberals like himself and young people are too vapid to care. It’s one of a few moments in the film that McKay jumps up on his soapbox, and it’s the one I liked the least.
The Favourite and Vice are two excellently bleak films, each with their own view on power and their own underlying cynicism. Power destroyed Dick Cheney and Abigail Hill, though they both were happy pilots of their own destruction. At the end of the movie, Cheney breaks the fourth wall in a defiant monologue hellbent on his own justification. He’s a man with no regrets, at least by his own account. Abigail has some regrets, though perhaps not in the conventional sense. Though she has a title and a husband now, she remains at the queen’s whim, in some senses just as powerless as she was before. Power is corrupting and it always comes with collateral damage, especially when you lean into it gleefully. Both of these films are poised to be major contenders for the Oscars, though it remains to be seen whether their cold outlooks will be a burden or a boon.