“The Favourite” is a Monty Python sketch without the cross dressing. A daft and broad historic farce played out over two hours, it is sumptuous in its period detail, bawdy and rude and laugh-out-loud funny in its sexualized, slapstick riff on an actual historic feminine power struggle during the reign of Britain’s Queen Anne.
Yorgos Lanthimos, director of the more twisted and cryptic “The Lobster” has conjured up a “Moll Flanders” or “Tom Jones” for a feminist age — nasty and brutal, slapstick that draws blood.
Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, dazzling) is a ditzy, lonely soul battered by a life of illness and personal tragedy. Let’s leave out how she took part in the overthrow of her father, King James, by the Dutch couple, William and Mary, the cunning it took to see herself as possible queen down the road.
Our story begins years after that, after she has lost her husband, after seventeen miscarriages and dead toddlers. She’s in her dotage, obsessed with her seventeen pet rabbits and her only true friend, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Oscar winner Rachel Weisz).
They’re closer than close, with Sarah and her always-absent husband the Duke — he was Britain’s greatest general and always fighting on The Continent — the power behind the throne. The women had pet names for each other, with Sarah, a friend since childhood, addressing the queen as “Anne” or “Mrs. Marley.”
She’s the one who keeps the court in line. She’s the one straining to keep the sickly, dotty Anne from embarrassing herself at court, helping her outmaneuver the toxic Tory fop Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult, perfect), protecting her from makeup fiascoes.
“You look like a badger!”
Enter Abigail (Oscar winner Emma Stone), Sarah’s once-wealthy cousin, brought low by financial disasters beyond her control. She seeks employment, which Sarah provides — scullery maid duties. She seeks status, angling to get close to the Queen via country poultice treatments for Anne’s ulcers, gout, etc. Sarah resists this.
“She is to receive SIX from the birch!”
Thus begins a struggle for access to Her Majesty, a battle of wits and poison and fowling pieces to curry favor, to become “The Favourite.”
Weisz as Sarah describes both women when she disparages Abigail as “a viper.” Stone’s Abigail suggests native cunning learned from hard knocks and the brutal beat-downs of life. Desperation even. Weisz? With every cutting look, every veiled and unveiled threat — many involving firearms — you believe this courtier, who cuts a dashing figure in men’s sports and men’s trousers, is more a killing cousin than kissing cousin to Abigail.
As Abigail is chased by a would-be seducer and plays the angles to fend off her cousin, Stone lets us see both the deadly stakes of their “game,” and how much fun she’s having. She’s Eric Idle in a dress.
“Have you come to seduce me or rape me?”
“I am a GENTLEMAN!”
Weisz? She’s cold-blooded, lethally witty, a poker-faced John Cleese with pistols.
And not to belabor the Python analogy, Colman’s Anne is the queen Terry Jones, in his prime, was aiming for — dizzy, but not always so, vulnerable and quick to clear a room (even Parliament) or end an argument with “I have SPOKEN!”
Flippant “chapter” titles such as “I: This Mud Stinks” and “XX: I Dreamt I Stabbed You in the Eye” merely hammer home the silly point of it all, obvious as it is.
It’s not history, stunning palace locations and lush costumes aside. “The Favourite” is just fun, “something completely different,” though it does tend to drag as it takes us where we are sure it must go.
And it makes a great, droll tour de force for the likes of Weisz, Stone, Colman and even Hoult, finally given the wig and mascara he was born to wear, the bitchy venality he was born to play.
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, nudity and language.
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Olivia Colman, Nicholas Hoult
Running time: 1:59