The Favourite is not your traditional historical biopic. In one scene, set in the royal bedchamber of Kensington Palace in a very early year of the 18th Century, we see Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), the unlovely last of the Stuart monarchs, conversing with Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough, her intimately influential friend and counselor. They are discussing the war in France, and the possible necessity of raising taxes to continue funding it. Then, suddenly, they are kissing, with what would appear to be a practiced passion. "Fuck me," the queen demands.
This rousingly mean-spirited film is the last sort of movie you might expect from Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director whose specialty heretofore has been a unique strain of deadpan surrealism (Dogtooth, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer). Here, given a healthy budget, a tart script, a trio of top actors, and a 400-year-old English country estate at which to shoot, he has delivered a picture that is gorgeous in its production design and filled to the brim with heartless people spouting wonderfully wounding dialogue.
Colman gives a mighty performance as the gout-plagued Queen Anne, a woman whose 17 pregnancies have left her with no surviving children ("Some were born as blood, some without breath," she says). She memorializes these nonextant offspring with a collection of 17 rabbits that we see hopping around her bedroom. She also requires the use of a wheelchair to travel any significant distance in her enormous palace, and the laying-on of raw beefsteaks to soothe her perpetually inflamed skin. Lady Sarah—played by Weisz with flinty assurance—indulges the queen's eccentricities, but has also leveraged their relationship to acquire formidable power at court, where as a Whig she presses for continuation of the French war (her absent husband is its presiding general) against the resistance of Tory landowners who are already tired of paying for it.
One day a mud-spattered young woman named Abigail Hill (a born-to-scheme Emma Stone) arrives at the palace. Abigail is actually a cousin of Lady Sarah, but her branch of the family has been ruined through dissolution. ("When I was 15, my father lost me in a card game," she says.) Sarah takes pity and brings the penniless girl on as a scullery maid. Abigail, however, quickly develops larger ambitions, and sets herself to replace Sarah in the queen's affections.
The ensuing machinations for power and advantage among these three women are pricelessly cruel, and they're staged in a succession of spectacular period interiors—a wall-to-wall riot of resplendent tapestries, swag curtains, golden ceilings, and miles of candelabras (Lanthimos says he shot much of the movie by candlelight). By day, a raw wintry light pours in through the high windows, suggesting a Vermeer painting; similarly, the director's use of fish-eye lenses (presumably to heighten the whopping scale of the regal environments through which the characters move) recalls the convex mirrors in works by other Dutch masters. The costumes, by multi-Oscar-winner Sandy Powell, are period-aware but wonderfully fanciful, too—one doubts there were any gowns as superbly crafted as these three centuries ago.
In anyone else's hands, this story of three strong women at one another's throats might have turned into rote feminist flag-waving. But gender aside, Anne, Sarah and Abigail are simply the most interesting characters on view. Most of the men we see dawdling in the background are geezers or fops (Nicholas Hoult, playing the opposition leader Robert Harley in powder and rouge and an enormous white wig, gives a wonderfully droll performance, but his character is clearly no match for any of the women, who would surely have his guts for garters if he gave them any guff.)
The script—initially fashioned by Deborah Davis, and later punched up by Australian playwright Tony McNamara—conjures Queen Anne's period in odd particulars ("My maid is on her way up with something called a pineapple") and arch intimidation ("I feel a surge of desire to see your nose broken"). But the feelings of jealousy, greed, and frank ill will that we see on display here are peculiar to neither that time nor this one. "I'm on my side," says Abigail. "Always."