“The Favourite” is what might happen if “Marie Antoinette” and “All About Eve” had a baby, and that baby claimed “Love & Friendship” as a cousin, “Dangerous Liaisons” as a mentor and “Gosford Park” as a dear friend. In other words, it’s fantastic.
Most period pieces about royal courts result in inspirational folly (“The King’s Speech”) or shadowy theatrics (“The Other Boleyn Girl”). But “The Favourite” does not adhere to convention, which will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with its director, Yorgos Lanthimos, a Greek satirist who targeted the nuclear family structure in “Dogtooth,” coupledom in “The Lobster” and quotidian destiny in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” Queen Anne’s reign is hardly a predictable arena for Lanthimos’ twisted humor, but it turns out he is the perfect person to prod the stateliness expected from palace confines.
That much is evident from the film’s opening scene, in which Anne (Olivia Colman) gifts her most treasured courtier, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), a castle. Sarah, a top-ranking military officer’s wife, says the gesture is much too generous, considering their kingdom is embroiled in a controversial and expensive war with France. “We won,” Anne protests. Sarah informs her that, actually, no, the fighting is to continue. “Oh,” Anne responds, eyeing the floor with sudden bemusement. “Oh. I did not know that.”
A back-and-forth this droll is quintessential Lanthimos, even if Lanthimos is not credited on the movie’s screenplay. (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara wrote it.) “The Favourite” spends its first half-hour doubling down on such whimsy. Politicians race ducks to pass the time, Anne commands an attendant to look at her and then scolds him for doing so, vassals perform ridiculous (and anachronistic) choreographed dances, and Sarah tells a scheming House of Commons dandy (Nicholas Hoult) that she cannot take him seriously when his mascara is running. Nearly every line is a delicious barb, presenting the assumed austerity of the 18th-century British crown as little more than a buffet of sensationalistic machinations. Anne’s verdict on raising landowners’ taxes to extend the war ― a decision with devastating implications for her constituents ― rests on whether Sarah (who supports the hike) or the mascaraed statesmen (who, in a rival move, wants a treaty) better appeals to her image-conscious insecurities.
“The Favourite” spends its two-hour runtime cascading head-on into a delicious hurricane, and around the 30-minute mark, Anne finds herself judging a very different contest. The ongoing war is relegated to the background, Lanthimos twisting the genre’s hallmarks — lavish costuming, a feuding parliament, a vulnerable monarch — to chronicle an indecisive ruler caught in a battle of manners waged by Abigail (Emma Stone), a fresh-faced scullery maid dropped on the castle’s muddy lawn in the film’s inaugural moments. She is desperate to escape servitude. One night, when Abigail isn’t either scrubbing a floor or sleeping on one, she spies Anne and Sarah in a dim corridor, discovering they are, well, more than friends. Pinpointing the queen’s sapphic proclivities as a way to curry favor, Abigail launches a fight far more intriguing than the one Sarah’s husband is off leading: that of a viper so anxious to achieve aristocracy that she’s willing to pit herself against the master of manipulation.
Anne takes a liking to Abigail, who knowingly ignites the queen’s attention by concocting an herbal remedy that soothes Anne’s gout. But Sarah catches on quickly, striking back first with a soft verbal vengeance and then with an all-out antagonism. Forget the duck races or the battlefield horrors. The real tournament is the one unfolding between a woman clawing her way to power and another woman refusing to have hers displaced. Anne is as much a bystander as she is a benefactor; having lost her husband and suffered 17 failed pregnancies, she is susceptible to depression and guilelessness. No matter how many corseted paramours enter her boudoir, Anne’s life is largely one of solitude, indigestion and steep responsibility — hardly an easy cocktail to swig.
Lanthimos knows how to milk those dynamics for maximum impact. “The Favourite” is both an uproarious comedy and a sneaky thriller, as the love triangle yields tart bonhomies as much as it does what-will-they-do-next chicanery. The film is wise to emphasize the palace’s overwhelming grandeur, as Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan (“American Honey,” “Philomena”) often frame characters as small figures within the vast rooms and courtyards that envelop their drama. There’s a slick punk-rock sensibility to a movie that looks this beautiful but lets its regal subjects delve so brazenly into matters of the vulva. Even the routine fisheye lenses, an indulgence that seems to serve no narrative purpose, are forgivable when everything else is so purposefully plotted and captivatingly captured.
It also helps that the three central performances are pitch-perfect, especially that of Colman, who worked with Lanthimos on “The Lobster” and won an Emmy for “The Night Manager.” She affixes in Anne a permanent state of confusion, broken only by the fleeting self-satisfaction that accompanies her mistresses’ cajolery. But no matter where Sarah and Abigail stand, we know Anne as a person of deep dimension, someone thrust into leadership despite personal strife. Colman is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, an ideal partner for Weisz’s steely resolve and Stone’s anxious cunning.
One telling throughline tackles how the two women treat the pet rabbits Anne keeps — 17 in total, each representing one of her late children. Farce and pathos intermingle, the former giving way to the latter in affecting bursts. By the time the movie reaches its climax, the dangerous liaisons leave behind an air of melancholy, sending us out on a somber note that thankfully doesn’t dehydrate all the soapy amusements preceding it.
Are the details historically accurate? Who cares. (For what it’s worth, historians have speculated about Anne’s sexuality, and we know the real Sarah and Abigail competed to be her right-hand adviser, whatever that might have entailed.) Someone or another will always put courtly tales to the smell test, but Lanthimos achieves something that defies such rigors: a story that presents power as a seductive force, even an addiction. Women outmaneuver the men in congress, and they outmaneuver one another as well — an equal-opportunity arms race to ensure that those accustomed to privilege do not let themselves fall by the wayside.
In keeping, “The Favourite” is a poignant yarn, rechristening a fascinating filmmaker whose reputation continues to soar. It’s also the most fun you’ll have in a movie theater this year.
“The Favourite” opens in limited release Nov. 23 and expands throughout December.