We’ve talked about the Villain Fake-Out before, where a supporting character turns out to have been the villain all along, but this movie does something more ambitious: Our hero gradually turns villainous, and her victimizer gradually grows more sympathetic.
The movie does all the work of making us fall in love with Emma Stone (First step: Cast Emma Stone), and we only belatedly say 90 minutes later, “Hey, why did I ever fall in love with this lady? She’s kind of terrible.” So we look back at what gave us the false impression that she would be a better lover for the queen than Rachel Weisz. We see the tricks they used:
- Stone is poor. She’s a cousin of Weisz, but her father has cost them everything, and now she must come begging for any job.
- Stone is humiliated: When she gets off a carriage seeking her cousin, someone sadistically kicks her and sends her sprawling in the mud. Later, she is treated terribly by the rest of the staff.
- Stone is “nicer”. The sexual relationship between Weisz and the queen has turned acidic. At times it seems they can barely stand each other, but the queen clearly needs Weisz, both sexually and for advice.
Wouldn’t it be nice if our poor, put-upon heroine could live out a Cinderella story, win the heart (and bed) of a royal and get to spend the rest of her life attending balls in the palace?
But it’s only when Stone is the new Favourite that we remember, “Oh right, bad people can be poor and humiliated, too.” And they can even be “nice”, when it advances their cause. As Weisz tries to remind the queen after she’s been forced out, a good lover should tell you when you look like a badger. Stone sees that the queen no longer wants honesty, and there’s a chance to steal her away with fawning lies.
We believe in all the characters, because the details in the movie are wonderful, but we care for and invest our hopes in Stone’s character only. Then we discover that her eventual success does not gratify our emotional investment like we thought it would. By design, we do not care for nor invest in Weisz’s character …until the end, when we re-evaluate our value system. The movie encourages us to question the ways that all movies get us to choose our favorite character, and realize that just because one character is clearly easier to care for and invest in, doesn’t mean that the easy choice is the right choice.