Yes, “The Favourite” is set during the reign of Queen Anne in the early 18th century.
Yes, the costumes and sets are lavish and spectacular, and sure to attract the attention of Awards People.
Yes, it’s about royalty and the .0001 percent, and the characters speak with the cadence and diction of the thoroughly sophisticated and the highly educated.
And yes, the soundtrack includes pieces by the likes of Handel, Bach and Vivaldi.
But this is no subtle and sly and dry comedy of manners. It’s a bawdy, darkly funny, sharp-edged, foul-mouthed comedy of very BAD manners, featuring exhilarating and hilarious and sometimes hilariously sexy (and nomination-worthy) work from Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, who continually bring out the very best in one another.
If Monty Python had ever made a movie inspired by the story of two cousins engaging in a high-stakes battle to win the favor of Queen Anne, they would have done well to serve up something as deliciously wicked as this raunchy romp, which is directed with great style by Yorgos Lanthimos from a jump-off-the-page screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara.
“The Favourite” is set against the backdrop of the bloody and costly war in France, which is exacting a horrific toll on the good people of England. Young men are dying in battle and there seems to be no end to the war — and yet the queen is under pressure to continue to fund the war effort by doubling the taxes on a populace already suffering and stretched to the limit.
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The veteran and well-respected British actress Olivia Colman gives the performance of a lifetime as Queen Anne, who often acts like a spoiled child and seems on the verge of madness as she suffers from debilitating physical ailments and violent mood swings. But there’s also something so very sad and lonely about the queen, who keeps 17 pet rabbits in her bedroom — each named for one of the children she lost at childbirth or shortly thereafter.
Rachel Weisz, equally electric, plays Queen Anne’s lifelong friend and closest confidante Lady Sarah Churchill, who is the queen’s intimate in more ways than one. Or two. Or three.
It appears as if nothing and no one can come between Anne and Sarah, until the arrival of young Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), an impoverished nobody in mud-spattered clothes who shows up unannounced one day, looking for work.
Abigail would be thrown right out, were it not for the fact Sarah and Abigail are actually cousins — so Sarah throws the poor girl a bone and gives her a job as a low-level servant.
That might be a big mistake, Sarah. Huge.
Abigail quickly rises through the ranks and becomes Sarah’s rival for the affections of Anne, who is so busy tending to the rabbits and gorging on sweets and dealing with the Whigs and the Tories trying to convince her to take their side in the ongoing political battles, she hardly seems to notice the vicious competition between Sarah and Abigail.
Or perhaps the queen isn’t as oblivious and clueless as some might believe.
“The Favourite” is filled with nasty language — let’s just say the British have a different take on the c-word than Americans — and choice moments of deadpan humor. One high-ranking politician insists on bringing his duck Horatio with him wherever he goes, because the duck regularly wins the, um, duck races held indoors. Another politico courts a potential wife by engaging in a wrestling match of sorts with her in the deep of the woods. (He’s overmatched.)
The men wear ridiculous wigs and powder their faces and fuss about like cartoon swans. The women are also costumed in impractical finery, but by and large, they’re more practical, more sensible and more cunning than their male counterparts.
Director Lanthimos and his director of photography Robbie Ryan shot “The Favourite” in 35mm, using natural light to capture the visuals of the time — but they also employ fish-eye lenses and some twirling camera pyrotechnics, giving the film a distinct and original look. It’s a period piece with a wink.
It’s also funny as hell and a true big-screen treat.
Fox Searchlight presents a film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Rated R (for strong sexual content, nudity, and language). Running time: 121 minutes. Opens Friday at AMC River East 21, Landmark Century Centre and Century 12 in Evanston.