In my last column of the 2018, I am reviewing two movies that each focus on difficult relationships between women that come to disastrous (in the case of The Favorite) or heartwarming ends (in Dumplin’).
The Favorite reminded me of a cross between Mean Girls and Marie Antoinette and centers on two ladies vying for the affection of the queen. Set in the early 18th century in the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), the story picks up in the middle of a war with France. Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the Queen’s closest confidant, best friend, and sometimes lover, runs the palace and largely controls the queen’s opinions. In that capacity, she has earned her share of enemies, particularly among those who oppose the continual increase in land taxes to fund the war. Lady Sarah does not expect an enemy in her impoverished cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), who arrives at the palace looking for a job. Once a lady herself, Abigail is determined to win Queen Anne’s affection and to use her favor as a catapult back to social standing and power.
Although Queen Anne seems pretty ridiculous and weak from the start, I was surprised by the emotional depth that the film gives her and her relationships with both Sarah and Abigail. At one point, Sarah tells Abigail that Anne is “stalked by tragedy” and as those tragedies are hinted at, the Queen’s weakness looks less ridiculous and more sympathetic. This dynamic not only provides plenty of material for the outstanding performances by the three leading ladies, it also helps underscore the relationships with more depth and personal stakes. The film also adeptly portrays how Sarah and Abigail have little overt power, but can use relationships and their wits to attain significant sway. The story kept me on my toes and I was thinking about the movie for the rest of the week after I saw it.
Considering the bizarreness of director Yorgos Lanthimos’s other work (including The Lobster, which I detested), I knew that this film would be visually striking. He does a masterful job of using the over-the-top wealth of the court to develop character. The bigger the wig, the pettier the man. The film also has visually cheeky moments that add levity. For example, at a party, Lady Sarah and another courtier dance in style clearly meant to look more modern than the 18th century setting calls for. Overall, the film is artfully made and features stunning performances by Colman, Weisz, and Stone.
The Favorite was written by Deborah Davis and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. It runs 2 hours and is rated R.
A new Netflix Original, Dumplin’ focuses on the relationships between Willowdean a.k.a. “Dumplin’” (Danielle Macdonald), her former beauty queen mother Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), and her Aunt Lucy. After Lucy passes away, Willowdean struggles to connect with her mother. While Rosie gears up for running the annual Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant, a Texas institution, Willowdean decides to enter as a protest. Joined by her friends Ellen (Odeya Rush) and Millie (Maddie Baillio)–who actually want to compete–and radical feminist classmate Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus), Willowdean finds that participating in the pageant is more emotionally fraught than she bargained for.
Dumplin’ is a treat to watch. Soundtracked with plenty of Dolly Parton, the story is full of sass, girlpower, drag queens, and affirmations. The characters have more depth than I anticipated and the screenplay, along with performances by Aniston and Macdonald, balances the tough mother-daughter relationship in such a way that there is not clear hero or villain. Just like in life. The real standout is Maddie Baillio as Millie. Her transformation over the course of the film is managed not through makeovers, but through a boost in confidence. Her joy is infectious and the performance was a showstopper. I thoroughly recommend snuggling up with your best gal pals and enjoying Dumplin’.
Dumplin’ was written by Kristin Hahn, based on the novel by Julie Murphy, and directed by Anne Fletcher. It runs 1 hour and 50 minutes and is rated PG-13.