There may be no funnier or sadder scene in a movie this year than the dance that takes place midway through “The Favourite.” A gathering is underway at the palace of Queen Anne, though if you didn’t know better, the stilted, otherworldly air of formality and absurdity might put you in mind of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. The weirdly anachronistic dance moves on display, meanwhile, are clearly the signature of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, who has made nuttily arresting musical numbers (see “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster”) something of a career specialty.
The sequence is hilarious but no more nonsensical, really, than some of the other rites and excesses characteristic of the 18th-century British aristocracy. This is very much to the movie’s point, though Lanthimos, to his credit, seeks to elicit more than our ridicule. The laughter stops dead and the tears begin to flow when the camera slowly zooms in on Queen Anne (a magnificent Olivia Colman) as she watches the festivities from her wheelchair. Her face is garishly painted and powdered, but her eyes shimmer like jewels, opening windows into a deep, unendurable heartache.
It’s easy to be blasé whenever an actor plays royalty, a challenge that often comes saddled with expectations of Judi Dench- or Helen Mirren-like greatness. But Colman, already chosen to succeed Claire Foy as Elizabeth II on Netflix’s “The Crown,” gives the kind of performance that obliterates your assumptions, along with a handsome chunk of Fiona Crombie’s production design. A regal figurehead one minute and a wailing, helpless grotesque the next, Colman’s Anne is at all times the aching human centerpiece of this splendidly wicked and almost indecently entertaining movie.
If Anne earns the full weight of the audience’s sympathy, she is hardly the only one you root for in a picture whose title immediately establishes a spirit of competition. Colman, rather than sucking the oxygen out of the room, sets the tempo for similarly stellar work from Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, the other two sides of a vividly intricate emotional and psychological triangle. “The Favourite” is a caustic swirl of a chamber epic, a bawdy, backbiting historical riff on “All About Eve” carried along on gusts of palace intrigue, lofty vitriol and illicit desire. It may be more pure, devious fun than any other great movie this year.
At first, the queen’s favorite is clearly Lady Sarah Churchill (Weisz), duchess of Marlborough, a black-sheathed viper who has wormed her way into the position of Anne’s most trusted friend and consort. In the carefully researched but loosely fictionalized script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Sarah has become a chief tactician in England’s War of the Spanish Succession against France, a conflict that remains pointedly off-screen. She oversees the royal coffers and smacks down the scheming Tory leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult, making an excellent impression beneath his flowing wig), who is trying to cut the severe land taxes that are financing the war.
But Sarah’s position is complicated by the arrival of her cousin Abigail Hill (Stone), a commoner who turns up seeking employment, her bright, cheery demeanor recommending her more highly than her mud-stained garments. Abigail is put to work in the castle scullery, where, after enduring a few burns and lashes but also demonstrating some pluck and ingenuity, she earns Sarah’s grudging respect and, in time, the queen’s affections.
As for the queen herself, she’s a regal wreck, her heart ravaged by years of grief, her body prone to attacks of gout and her mind inattentive to matters of state. She is thus an ideal target, or mark, for Sarah and Abigail as they orchestrate an escalating series of power plays, complicated by veiled threats, twisty alliances and sexual favors. A brief tussle with a lordly fool named Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) reveals Abigail’s skill at gaining the upper hand. Meanwhile, Sarah’s hushed-up dalliances with the queen are among the many weapons she uses to manipulate her behind closed doors, plying her with giggling confidences one minute and pummeling her with insults the next.
Called upon at one point to defend her withering remarks, Sarah replies, “I will not lie; that is love!” And “The Favourite,” nothing if not ruthlessly honest itself, does not exactly contradict her. The movie’s most troubling insight may be that cruelty and compassion are often interchangeable bedfellows — a thesis that gets put to the test when Abigail supplants her rival in the queen’s boudoir. Beneath her friendly demeanor and farm-fresh smile, Abigail turns out to be as wily as Sarah and possibly even more cold-blooded, slipping easily beneath whatever mask will best suit the purpose at hand.
And really, who can blame her? As it shuttles between upstairs and downstairs, often accompanied by mighty blasts of Bach and Handel, the story pauses on occasion to let Abigail recall the wretched days of poverty and prostitution her father once sold her into. We feel the seething desperation of life in a society where being a woman means absorbing endless blows to the flesh and spirit — a dismal existence to which the movie, with its glorious portrait of three remarkable women battling for their own autonomy and satisfaction, presents a bracing corrective.
Our feelings are expertly tugged this way and that, and the Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan (“American Honey”) brilliantly visualizes the sense of flux as he sends us hurtling from one end of the queen’s chamber to the other. The camera is forever in motion, stalking Abigail from behind as she makes her way down a corridor and partaking of Anne’s girlish glee as Sarah pushes her around in her wheeled throne. For all its exquisite furnishings and wall-to-wall tapestries, to say nothing of Sandy Powell’s supremely distinctive costumes, “The Favourite” never feels merely sumptuous or painterly. The bygone world it shows us is fiercely, almost viscerally present.
More than any other world-renowned auteur I can think of, Lanthimos has succeeded in turning the Hollywood prestige drama into a vessel for his own boldly idiosyncratic style. (If “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” was Lanthimos’ art-horror ode to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” then “The Favourite” cannot help but recall the candlelit mise-en-scène of “Barry Lyndon.”) Set at the juncture of deadpan satire, dystopian horror and speculative fiction, his movies tend to unfold in rigorously arch, carefully monitored societies governed by laws as strict as they are bizarre.
Seen in that light, Lanthimos’ decision to eviscerate the 18th-century British aristocracy seems startlingly intuitive. Like his previous films, “The Favourite” sometimes feels like an elaborate behavioral experiment, an impression it encourages by framing several shots through extreme wide-angle lenses. Demented cine-sociologist that he is, the director takes a hilariously dim view of the royal amusements and rituals on display, whether it’s a palace duck race — it wouldn’t be a Lanthimos movie without a few scene-stealing animals — or a nude man being pelted with pomegranates in a kind of proto-paintball game.
But these cutaways, much like the playful chapter headings and stray political-historical asides, ultimately feel like decorative elements, gilding a frame around the movie’s glorious central trio. What you are most apt to remember from “The Favourite” is the cold, mirthless sarcasm in Weisz’s eyes as she quietly appraises her new adversary, or the mingling of excitement and fear in Stone’s face as she deftly steers herself out of one trap and into another.
Most of all you remember Colman, in a performance that achieves its power, in no small part, by utterly destroying our understanding of what power looks like. She beams and scowls, brays and bleeds, shatters and disintegrates. She rules.