For those who think historical costume dramas, particularly ones set among the English monarchy, are dry and tedious affairs, fasten your corsets and prepare for the exhilaratingly bumpy ride of “The Favourite.”
It’s 1708, England is embroiled in the War for Spanish Succession, an expensive affair that has strained the taxpaying subjects of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), the occasionally doddering monarch. The queen’s most trusted advisor is Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), a friend since girlhood, and wife of the commander of Her Majesty’s army, the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gattis). Sarah supports the war, and prods Queen Anne to order Parliament to raise taxes to pay for it.
Enter Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a distant cousin of Sarah whose family has fallen upon hard times. Abigail comes to Sarah to seek some lowly employment in the Queen’s service, and she lands as a lowly maid. For a young woman whose father sold her to a German to pay off gambling debts, scrubbing floors is a fine job.
When she notices the Queen has gout, Abigail figures out a way to ingratiate herself to the Queen and Sarah. She picks local herbs to reduce Anne’s aching legs, making the Queen feel better. More importantly, Abigail slyly makes sure Anne knows who picked the herbs — and, at the Queen’s urging, Sarah makes Abigail her lady-in-waiting.
As fast as you can say “All About Eve,” Abigail’s presence poses a threat to Sarah’s position as Queen Anne’s companion, confidante, and when necessary bed partner. Abigail also parlays the interest of Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), leader of the loyal opposition in Parliament and a foe of the war tax. Harley wants Abigail to spy for him, to report back Sarah’s scheming with Queen Anne and with the Conservatives to keep the war going, and Abigail extracts a price for that service.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) doesn’t let the powdered wigs and tapestries overwhelm his sense of humor, as he channels both the opulence of 18th century court life and the absurdity of it all. His favorite maneuver is an exaggerated fisheye lens, all the better to put the castle’s ostentatiousness all in one frame.
The script, by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, sets up a deliciously wicked game of wills between Sarah and Abigail, with Queen Anne as both tennis ball and the trophy. The game, and Lanthimos’ sure hand at satire, brings out the most devilish performances from Weisz, her machinations tempered by a dollop of pity for the ailing queen, and Stone, relishing her first real bad-girl performance as a schemer so intent on winning that she hasn’t realized the prize — the Queen’s favor — comes with some major downsides.
Best of all, in a category all by herself, is Colman, who takes the Queen from petulant brat to grieving widow to lonely soul with imperceptible shifts in her acting. It’s a performance truly fit for a queen, and makes “The Favourite” a movie deserving of favor.
Opened November 23 in select cities; opens Friday, December 14 at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City) and the Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy). Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and language. Running time: 119 minutes.