You know how some costume epics can be such a bloody bore? Not The Favourite. It’s a bawdy, brilliant triumph, directed by Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos with all the artistic reach and renegade deviltry he brought to Dogtooth (2009), The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). Olivia Colman deserves every acting prize on the planet for finding the tragicomic core of Queen Anne, the monarch who ruled Great Britain in the early 18th century, mostly from her chambers. Gout has covered Anne’s legs in leaking sores; her memory is slipping; and she keeps 17 bunnies running around the palace to replace the 17 children she birthed and lost. Her Royal Highness leaves the business of ruling to Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz, razor-sharp and sensational), who sleeps with the queen to make sure she’ll continue to aid her husband Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), out commanding the army in Britain’s continuing war with the French.
Enter Abigail Hill (Emma Stone, flat-out fabulous), Churchill’s cousin whose gambler of a late father has disgraced their noble family. She is down and out, literally, making quite the entrance as she’s kicked out of a coach and into the mud as a prelude to entering the palace. Sarah quickly dispatches her to scullery maid service. But in this frock-opera version of All About Eve, Abigail is soon working her way into the queen’s good graces, not to mention her bed. (Don’t expect Colman to indulge in such royal mischief when she takes over for Claire Foy in the role of Queen Elizabeth II on The Crown.) In no time the queen, the three women are embroiled in a love triangle, which leads to political pole-positioning — and then to an all-out war. The queen’s court may while away the time with duck-racing and pineapple-eating, but Sarah and Abigail, both angling for the ruler’s favor, prefer showing off their daunting proficiency with guns.
There are men in the mix, but they hardly matter in this woman’s world of court chicanery. Nicholas Hoult gets in his comic licks as Lord Harley, a statesman with a thing for rouge and fashion frippery. He also wants to recruit Abigail to his Tory agenda against the Churchills, who’s taxing his fellow landowners to finance her husband’s calamitously expensive war. As for his friend Masham (a pretty-as-a-picture Joe Alwyn), the young man has become what Harley refers to as “cunt-struck” over Abigail; he arranges a marriage to restore her to the nobility, though Abigail’s thoughts are focused strictly on affairs of state.Well, that … and revenge.
Though Lanthimos takes no screen credit for the deliciously cunning script by Deborah Davis and Australian playwright Tony McNamara, the director’s warped wit can be felt in every scene. He’s a filmmaker who’s allergic to the conventional, a fact reflected in everything from the outrageously skewed camera angles of Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan to a soundtrack that moves from Bach and Handel to club music as Sarah and Masham — wait for it — breakdance during an elegant ball.
WTF is not an unfair reaction to The Favourite — the film is divided into such quirky chapter headings as “This Mud Stinks,” “What an Outfit” and “I Dreamt I Stabbed You in the Eye.” That last one is not a figurative joke, either, thanks to an Abigail-engineered assault that has Sarah returning to court in an eyepatch and vowing vengeance. Weisz — and for that matter, everyone else — look incredible in the costumes of Sandy Powell, who tops her Oscar-winning self with period attire that morphs into right now at a moment’s notice. Add the sumptuous production design of Fiona Crombie, and you have a movie that’s mindblowing in every department.
Still, The Favourite belongs to its fierce, profanely funny female trio. Weisz and Stone are dynamos who never let you forget they’re battling a power structure fueled by testosterone. It’s #TimesUp for those bewigged dudes. And deep bows to Colman, who can move from hilarity (watch the queen rage when Sarah says she looks like a badger) to heartbreak as Anne becomes increasingly immobilized by her body while her mind bristles with clarity. That’s Lanthimos for you, never one to settle for one tone when he can throw a whole parade at you. Best of all, he makes us care about this women warriors who, without compromising their strength, also reveal their vulnerability and sorrow. It’s a creative burst that’s as profound as it is playful.