Historians are divided over whether Queen Anne of England was actually having sex with her ladies-in-waiting. The society gossip of the time — and the explicit letters she wrote to women — certainly suggested as much. Whether they were lesbians or not, three women certainly wielded enormous political power during Anne’s reign in the early 1700s. The Favourite, which expands to the Rave Ridgmar this weekend and certainly more theaters in the future, is a cold-eyed examination of the royalpolitik of this unusual time, but better than that, it’s also a delightful English sex comedy, a trifle soaked in enough liquor to knock you down.
The film depicts Anne (Olivia Colman) as paranoid, gout-ridden, vain, emotionally unstable, and obsessed with rabbits — in fairness, if you’d lost 17 pregnancies like Anne did, you might go a little crazy too. The one person who can soothe her is her lover of some decades: Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), whose army general husband is conveniently off fighting a war in France that Sarah is industriously working to prolong. Upsetting the dynamic is Sarah’s cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a bankrupt aristocrat’s daughter who arrives at the palace to work as a scullery maid. Late one night, Abigail is browsing in the library and catches the queen and Sarah in mid-sex. Shocked though she is, she promptly starts dangling herself in front of Anne, because sleeping in the royal bedchamber is preferable to sleeping in a closet with 20 other maids. When Sarah finds out, she turns jealous and controlling, and the war in France becomes nothing compared to the war between the palace walls.
This is no ordinary costume epic, because it’s directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the wackadoo Greek filmmaker behind The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. This is his most accessible film to date because Lanthimos plays out these royal power games as farce, with the women pushing each other into the mud while the MPs get naked and throw pomegranates at each other. While many of the insane facts in this film are true, Lanthimos still likes to throw in his absurdist, historically inaccurate touches, like a court dance when Sarah and an army colonel named Masham (Joe Alwyn) bust out Madonna’s dance moves to W.F. Bach’s music. The catty script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara follows anachronistic suit, with Tory party leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) saying “No pressure!” and Sarah later asking Masham, “Would you like a bite of my maid before you leave?” (Later, Harley describes Masham as “cuntstruck” by Abigail, an obscenity that seems like it would be quite useful.) The slapstick’s sinister edge becomes more pronounced as the film goes on: Sarah fires a gun at Abigail as a practical joke, and later, Abigail gets back at her by spiking Sarah’s tea with something nasty.
Lanthimos’ peculiar wavelength isn’t something that every actor can tune themselves to, but the ones here do stellar work. Hoult contributes a neat little performance as a levelheaded operator who exploits all the royal bed-hopping to his own political advantage. Stone, managing the British accent quite well, is revelatory playing a conniver who’s well aware that she’s one misstep away from being forced to earn a living through prostitution. Abigail’s gears are always grinding — even when she’s mechanically masturbating Masham on their wedding night, she delivers a monologue obsessing about what Sarah might be plotting.
Meanwhile, Colman’s performance is the closest you’ll see to a woman playing King Lear. This 44-year-old actress has mostly worked on British TV, though you may recognize her as the German maid in Murder on the Orient Express or the female cop in Hot Fuzz. Here, she delivers all the queen’s outsized emotions, complaining endlessly about the pain in her legs, smartly playing her two lovers off each other for her own amusement, wallowing in self-pity, and screaming in the face of a pageboy, first for not looking at her and then for looking at her. Anne’s enslavement to the force of her own whims (and everybody else’s enslavement, for that matter) might not rise to the level of tragedy that Lanthimos seems to think, but it makes for some fun. Every holiday season seems to bring a costume epic that’s packing serious heat underneath all the gowns and frippery. This year, it’s The Favourite.
Starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Rated R.