Palace intrigue: Sex, humor, and elaborate costumes define The Favourite

Emma Stone and Olivia Colman star in The Favourite, a delightfully wicked twist on British period dramas. Image courtesy Fox Searchlight Emma Stone and Olivia Colman star in The Favourite, a delightfully wicked twist on British period dramas. Image courtesy Fox Searchlight

The romantic costume drama gets an injection of style and attitude in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite. By its description—period piece from the director of Dogtooth, wartime power struggles, a love triangle, cousins jockeying for the Queen’s good graces—you’d have no way of knowing that The Favourite is one of the most ferociously funny films of this year’s awards season. The bluntness that Lanthimos typically reserves for moments of intense violence is expressed through the guise of manners and aristocratic behavior in English high society of the 18th century. We knew the man who made The Lobster could pack a comedic punch, but The Favourite is a terrific change of pace for its filmmaker, its stars, and audiences who won’t know what’s next.

The Favourite centers on a love triangle between (real historical figures) Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and cousins Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone). Sarah is constantly at the Queen’s side, advising her, entertaining her, even taking her place when she is not well. Abigail, meanwhile, was lost by her father in a card game years before and must work as hired help in the palace. Anne is in ill health physically, emotionally, and perhaps mentally, and she’s unable to navigate the complexities of war and politics, making the role of her “favourite” quite influential. Abigail, after receiving ill treatment from her cousin and discovering the secret affair between Anne and Sarah, plots to outmaneuver and, if possible, supplant her, using opportunistic politicians (Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley) and lustful aristocrats (Joe Alwyn as Samuel Masham) along the way.

One of the most exciting aspects of this battle of wits is that there is no clear villain or hero. Both Abigail and Sarah have justifiable reasons to oppose each other, and neither are easy to root for or against. Even if the lengths they go to in thwarting the other are excessive, they each believe they have no choice. Lanthimos knows the audience is grasping for signals of who is the sympathetic one and who is the excessively cruel one, so the denial of any broadcasted moral certainty makes this film a joy to watch.

Interestingly, and refreshingly, the sexuality of the characters is never put under a microscope. It is just a matter of fact that a woman can marry a man and sleep with a woman, with no alteration to how her character is perceived or depicted.

The characters who might be the subject of scorn in another film—Anne for her royal aloofness, Harley for the wealth he represents, and Masham for his relentless pursuit of Abigail—are treated thoughtfully rather than mocking the weirdness of rich people (though there is a good deal of that). Anne in particular is a prisoner of her station; not only as queen, but as a widow whose 17 pregnancies all ended in death, who cannot walk unassisted, and who is unequipped to live outside the walls of the palace. Colman is exceptional in the role, playing her with humor and grace, rooted in tragedy.

The Favourite is one of the most fun costume dramas in recent memory, as well as the funniest of this year’s batch of award seekers.

The Favourite

R, 123 minutes, Violet Crown Cinema

See it again

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

PG-13, 97 minutes. Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, December 15

Local theater listings

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

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