'The Favourite' and 'At Eternity's Gate' Shake Up the Historical Drama Formula

Some of the nonfiction dramas at this year's New York Film Festival fail to take history as seriously as cinema has in the past.

The Favourite
Fox Searchlight

On paper, Yorgos Lanthimos‘ The Favourite sounds like the platonic ideal of an Oscar movie. It’s produced by Fox Searchlight, the company that’s home to four of the last 10 Best Picture winners. It’s a costume drama about dueling political rivals trying to one-up each other in the battle to win influence over the ailing Queen Anne. It stars two Academy Award winners and a murderer’s row of experienced supporting players. And yet, it’s one of the most quietly strange movies of the year.

The Favourite (just coming off of its opening night run at the New York Film Festival) is one of an upcoming crop of awards contenders that looks like Oscar bait has looked for decades: sumptuous, dull, and mind-numbingly historically accurate. These films aren’t quite the same as their over-designed predecessors, however. They’re the products of a new crop of directors who aren’t quite as interested in making sure all of these dresses are period-accurate. Lanthimos, the writer-director behind surreal rambles like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, didn’t write The Favourite, but his peculiar proclivity for sexually disturbed love stories about horribly broken people shines through here. Rather than being a story about a battle for the throne of England, The Favourite becomes a twisted sexual battleground, interjecting historical speculation into classically depicted facts.

As the film goes on, Emma Stone‘s Abigail Masham and Rachel Weisz‘s Sarah Churchill are locked in an escalating battle over the affections of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, in a dynamite performance that deserves recognition this awards season). It’s an electric queer reinterpretation of an underexamined period in our history, one that totally recontextualizes Lanthimos’ habit of turning sex into a bloodless transaction, making what was a stylistic quirk into a visceral critique of the upper classes. It remains to be seen whether this very different form of historical fiction will find a place at the Oscars this year, but Lanthimos’ courage in smuggling such untraditional material into a traditional structure should be commended.

Likewise, Julian Schnabel‘s At Eternity’s Gate is an impressively impressionistic portrait of a topic that could be dull and undercooked. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly director tackles his Vincent Van Gogh biopic with a verve that almost manages to overwhelm the clear drawbacks of its flawed script. The film (which closed the New York Film Festival) was evidently shot in an unusually improvisatory fashion. Willem Dafoe‘s Van Gogh amiably interacts with the characters who wander in and out of his last days, including Oscar Isaac‘s Paul Gaugin, who shares a memorable scene with him painting on the top of a French hilltop. It’s an astonishingly subjective film, one that worms its way inside Van Gogh’s mind and stays there. Schnabel shoots the film in fractured, fuzzy, dreamlike sequences, playing with his subject’s perspective and injecting his audience into the history that they’re already familiar with.

At Eternity’s Gate hits all the bases of the last weeks of Van Gogh’s life, including his severed ear, friendship with Gaugin, and eventual death by gunshot wound. The film does take some shaky historical positions: It posits that Van Gogh’s death, presumed by most historians to be a suicide, was actually a failed robbery attempt by a pair of young criminals, and it fiddles with the explanation for Van Gogh’s treatment of his own ear. In the end, like last year’s Loving Vincent, it’s an interesting stylistic exercise that doesn’t quite overcome its all-too-traditional structure.

This year’s New York Film Festival offerings are not the only movies escaping from the constraints of history. First Man (which opened last Friday) wholesale invents an emotional climax in order to tie up the loose ends it establishes by depicting Ryan Gosling‘s Neil Armstrong as a bereaved parent haunted by the loss of his daughter. It’s arguable whether the addition makes the story of the first moon landing more interesting or engaging, but it certainly adds an element of the unexpected to a genre that’s of late become far too staid and predictable. In films like these, that alone ends up feeling worthwhile.

Student and film lover based in NYC.