The real fun of Yorgos Lanthimos’ "The Favourite," set in the early-18th-century court of England’s Queen Anne, is in the three central performances (from Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz), each of which threatens to steal the film. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
“As it turns out,” the scullery-maid-turned-court-favorite (Emma Stone) matter-of-factly states, “I’m capable of much unpleasantness.”
So, essentially, is everyone in “The Favourite,” Yorgos Lanthimos’ irresistibly nasty tale of lust, power and pet bunnies in the court of England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), who reigned in the early years of the 18th century. Anne, in poor health and perpetual petulance, is fussed over and not-so-subtly controlled by Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), a court noblewoman who’s learned that pleasing the queen (in every way) brings its own pleasures. Enter Abigail (Stone), a distant cousin of Sarah’s who arrives at court seeking favor — and soon manages to catch the queen’s eye. In the way of most such triangles, unpleasantness quickly ensues.
A period film would seem odd territory for Lanthimos (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” “The Lobster”), but here he easily meets the genre halfway, filling “The Favourite” with offbeat camerawork — we peer at the court through wide-angle shots, sometimes startlingly lovely but often weirdly distorted, as if this world is within its own thick-glass globe. The elaborate costumes, by Sandy Powell, have a sharp malevolence; the women, particularly Weisz, wear them like armor, swishing their skirts like a cat’s tail. And the interiors (much of the film takes place within the palace, with Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, England, playing the role nicely) are both gloriously ornate and curiously intimate, caught in yellow-wax candlelight.
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But the real fun here is in the three central performances, each of which threatens to steal the film (giving “The Favourite,” appropriately, its own balance-of-power issues). Weisz, whose character can’t quite hide her ambition behind a citrus-tart smile, puts a deliciously crisp spin on lines like “Let’s shoot something” and “I liked your father. He had charm to burn, and I guess he did” — the latter to Abigail, whose father died in a fire. Stone, as an ingénue who knows exactly what game she’s playing, lets us see how Abigail changes in the course of the film; her posture becomes more decided, her features less soft, her voice firmer.
And Colman (soon to be seen playing another British queen, Elizabeth II, on TV’s “The Crown”) finds something heartbreaking in Anne’s frustrated, imperious sadness. Those bunnies, doted on by the queen, stand for the many children she lost; she’s now aging, alone, ill and all too aware that she doesn’t know what she should, and no longer cares. Colman makes her gaze slightly unfocused, her attention fading like a snuffed candle. She’s a queen who’s barely there, and yet she’s the center of this wicked universe, holding the other characters’ fate in her increasingly unsteady grasp.
★★★½ “The Favourite,” with Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, James Smith, Mark Gatiss, Jenny Rainsford. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, from a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. 119 minutes. Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and language. Opens Dec. 7 at the Egyptian, Oak Tree, Lincoln Square.