Starring Emma Stone. Rated 14A
There are plenty of costume dramas with aristocrats vying for power, prestige, and the biggest of all possible wigs. But few have reached the level of delicious, fast-moving fun The Favourite breezily achieves in its perfumed two hours. Call it Hilarious Liaisons—although that would obscure a vein of melancholy that gives the movie an unexpected tug.
The battle royale here, set at the very start of the 18th century, is mostly between women. Written by Britain’s Deborah Davis and Australian Tony McNamara, and developed over two decades, the tale offers a ripe triumvirate of aristocrats (and actors) competing for centre stage. Top laurels are worn by Queen Anne, played by superb TV veteran Olivia Colman, who coincidentally takes over from Claire Foy as QE II on The Crown. Last of the Stuart dynasty, Anne is riven by doubt, gout, and other maladies, and leaves most decisions to her bossy-boots lady in waiting, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz, at her devious best). Sarah favours the war-inclined Whig party associated with her husband, Lord Marlborough, currently leading the English into yet another battle with the French.
Into this powdery cauldron comes Churchill cousin Abigail Hill (an extra-resourceful Emma Stone), fallen on hard times because of her father’s gambling debts. Initial employment as a scullery maid doesn’t cut it. So Abigail soon starts finagling her way into the queen’s good graces, and bedchamber, drawing Lady Marlborough’s ire, and the attentions of a Tory chief played by About a Boy’s grown-up Nicholas Hoult, unrecognizably coiffed after his Mad Max: Fury Road run.
Shot with an extra-wide-angle lens at massive palaces built for Henry VIII and others, the plot turns are too delicious to spoil. A surprising amount of frivolity comes at the hands of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose previous efforts in English, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, were more creepy than amusing. He’s not afraid to underline the catty script’s many purposeful anachronisms with outrageous black-and-white costumes and delightful sight gags, like having courtiers jitterbug to baroque party music. When not relying on Henry Purcell and other period composers, the director employs aggressively dissonant modern sounds to ramp up the tension.
Most shockingly, much of the story is based on fact. Our record of the real Queen Anne comes largely from a revenge journal written by the jilted Sarah (direct ancestor of both Winston Churchill and Princess Diana), who happily smeared her ambitious cousin. The filmmakers truncate Anne’s realm by writing her Danish husband out of the picture, and by ignoring her political accomplishments—she put the “United” next to “Kingdom”—and cultural interests. The movie is terrific, but you’d never know this queen nurtured the talents of Jonathan Swift, George Frederick Handel, and Isaac Newton. As they must have said back then, “How do you like them apples?”