In “The Favourite,” a deliciously diabolical comedy of ill manners and outré palace intrigue, Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, who in the 18th century ruled Great Britain while suffering through 17 ill-fated pregnancies, severe illness and not un-consequential wars with Spain and France.
Those circumstances are alluded to but not center in this movie, which focuses on Anne’s relationship with two of her closest female friends: Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, who became her most intimate confidante and adviser, and Abigail Hill, who supplanted Sarah in the queen’s affections toward the end of her reign. In this lusty, wildly speculative jape, writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara take those real-world outlines and run with them, concocting a story bursting with schemes, subterfuges, sexual antics and sly social commentary worthy of the Restoration era they depict so lavishly.
Funny, cynical, extravagant and rapturously vulgar, “The Favourite” puts the lie to such well-heeled dramas as “The Crown” (which Colman will star in soon) and Peter Morgan’s carefully researched biopics. Here, period authenticity clashes happily with occasional creative anachronisms to present audiences with a portrait of power as sobering as it is scabrously conniving.
As “The Favourite” opens, Abigail (Emma Stone) is just arriving at Kensington Palace, where she hopes to improve her fortunes with the help of her cousin, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz). Unimpressed, Sarah relegates the bedraggled but comely young lady to the scullery, the quicker to return her attentions to the emotionally needy Queen Anne — who at this stage of her life is half-mad with gout and grief — and pressing issues of war and peace. Soon enough, though, the wide-eyed Abigail has insinuated herself into the queen’s favor, deploying her native charms and wily intelligence with the tactical shrewdness of Captain-General Marlborough himself.
Directed with relish by Yorgos Lanthimos, “The Favourite” makes the most of the director’s attraction to transgressive, proudly perverse scenarios: In his previous films, “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” that propensity got the better of him in stories that wound up being strange for their own sake.
But, working with Davis and McNamara’s tart, tautly constructed screenplay, Lanthimos is in his element, leaning in to the visual and textural opulence of the setting, as well as the bizarre culture of an aristocracy steeped in phony patriotism, nationalistic swagger and decadent popular culture centered on food, animals and fussy artifice. (A running motif in the film is the queen’s motherly attention to rabbits she keeps as surrogate children; she also races lobsters before consuming them with lemon and butter.) Much like the purview of a world leader closer to home, the world of Queen Anne is depicted as one in which the fates of men and nations could depend on a regal fit of pique or a passing word of flattery.
One of the cleverest tricks “The Favourite” plays is misdirecting the audience regarding whom to root for. Clearly Anne is a poignant figure “stalked by tragedy,” as Sarah observes at one point; in a performance sure to be remembered as one of the year’s breakouts, Colman gets to the heart of her physical suffering and deep loneliness, playing her as peevish, vulnerable, sympathetic and deeply annoying all at the same time.
For her part, Stone embraces her own persona as a perpetual ingénue to inhabit Abigail as someone driven less by greed and status than sheer survival. She masters the British accent — not to mention the film’s generous helping of startlingly ribald asides — with admirable aplomb.
But it’s Weisz’s Sarah who emerges as “The Favourite’s” most fascinating figure, as a woman with a head for figures and an eye for the kill, whose ruthless candor makes her dangerous, to be sure, but also radically transparent. As diverting as it is to read all manner of historical and present-day allegory into the mischief and machinations of “The Favourite,” Lady Sarah understands most clearly what drives the wordplay, foreplay and foul play swirling around the monarch she serves and is serviced by.
“Sometimes,” she notes coolly, “a lady likes to have fun.