THE FAVOURITE, biographical drama, rated R; Center for Contemporary Arts, Violet Crown; 4 chiles All politics is sexual. That at least is the case in the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman of Broadchurch), the central figure in this ravishingly entertaining costume romp, as imagined by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer).
There’s enough historical framework here to sustain the liberties taken by Lanthimos and his devilishly clever screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Anne ruled England, and then the newly formed Great Britain, for a short stretch in the early 18th century. Her closest advisor and confidante was Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. When that relationship soured, Sarah (Rachel Weisz) was replaced in Anne’s affections by Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s poor relation.
Both Sarah and Abigail held positions as Ladies of the Bedchamber to the Queen, and in this movie’s deliciously bawdy take, they lived up to that title in more ways than one. Rumor at the time supported that notion as applied to Abigail, though that may have been scuttlebutt sowed by the disfavored Sarah. Here both ladies jockey ruthlessly for position, servicing the royal nether parts to gain the royal ear.
Everything clicks in this darkly funny satire. The humor is sometimes sophisticated and sometimes as slapstick as jolly courtiers pelting a naked man with rotten tomatoes or a woman falling face down in slop, but it all works. The costumes (Sandy Powell) are rich, and so is production design (Fiona Crombie) that creates a cavernous playground in which palace intrigue swirls; wars are alternately launched and halted, funded and starved; and ministers come and go (among them an excellent Peter Cook-like Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley, the Queen’s chief minister.)
All three women should be near the front of the line at Oscar time. Weisz and Stone play a risky game of chicken as they duel for Anne’s affections with wit, charm, deceit, and other more sinister weapons. And Colman is transcendent in her creation of a doughy, gouty, self-pitying egotist with occasionally glimpsed reserves of nobility and steel.
Queen Anne lost 17 children, most in miscarriages or stillbirths, a few in childhood, in a vain attempt to produce an heir. She surrounds herself instead with 17 pet rabbits that hop freely about the royal chamber, symbols of innocence and loss that figure indelibly in a stunning, bleakly kaleidoscopic final montage. — Jonathan Richards
Her-aldry: Olivia Colman