Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ (“The Lobster,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) outlandish surrealism finds a home in the somewhat fictionalized court of Queen Anne with “The Favourite,” a deliciously tawdry black comedy that’s also a surprisingly affecting period drama.
This is not your typical Oscar-bait historical drama, the kind with formally fancy costumes and stilted Queen’s English dialogue. Quite the opposite: “The Favourite” is an unapologetically profane, bracingly biting and wildly compelling tale of royal power plays fueled by three virtuoso women portraying refreshingly complex women.
In 18th-century England, the mercurial Anne (Olivia Colman), beset by chronic health problems as well as grief over the loss of 17 children (whom she memorializes with pet rabbits named for each one), may be queen, but she doesn’t really rule. The country is primarily run by the hardnosed Lady Sarah Churchill (Oscar winner Rachel Weisz), the monarch’s longtime friend, closest adviser and secret lover.
England is embroiled in a costly war with France that it behooves Lady Sarah to continue, given her husband’s (Mark Gattis) high-ranking military position and her close alliance with Prime Minister Godolphin (James Smith).
The balance of power shifts when Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Oscar winner Emma Stone, showing off a spot-on English accent), impoverished and abused due to her father’s gambling habits, arrives at the palace. Sarah initially sends her to the kitchens to serve as a lowly scullery maid, but when the Abigail sneaks into the queen’s chambers to apply a homemade ointment to the royal’s painful sores, she earns favor with the queen and Sarah.
As her foppish political opponent, Harley (Nicholas Hoult), ratchets up the pressure to end the war, Lady Sarah turns more of her attention to affairs of state, leaving Abigail and Anne to forge a close friendship that leads to a fierce rivalry for the title of the queen’s “Favourite.”
The screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara boldly blends fact and fiction with innuendo and anachronism. Likewise, three-time Oscar-winning costume maven Sandy Powell accessorizes the usual extravagant period regalia with contemporary couture designs, while cinematographer Robbie Ryan offsets lighting reminiscent of a Rembrandt painting with distorted fisheye lensing. Fiona Crombie’s production design is as sumptuous as one of Queen Anne’s cakes, with hints of rot just under the topping of finery.
Lanthimos outfits his costume drama in gaudy trappings like f-bombs, love triangles and duck races, but thanks to the bravura trio of actresses, “The Favourite” offers underneath a simple, timely, all-too-human tale of jealousy, survival and power.