The Favourite is a raucous comedy of bad manners

The Favourite is a raucous comedy of bad manners
If you haven’t yet come across the films of Yorgos Lanthimos — well, congratulations. Although a festival darling — he’s won prizes at Cannes for 2009’s Dogtooth, 2015’s The Lobster and 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer — his habit of wringing deadpan performances out of otherwise expressive actors has always left me cold.

But he may have found the perfect match in The Favourite, set in the court of Britain’s Queen Anne during the early 18th century, when the dawning Age of Reason was still struggling to clear away the wreckage of the late Middle Ages. Deadpan cool was a matter of courtly survival.

Also, Lanthimos’s previous films were scripted by him and writing partner Efthymis Filippou. This one was started 20 years ago by British writer Deborah Davis, later worked on by Australia’s Tony McNamara. The result plays like a feminist Blackadder, bawdy and clever and almost proudly historically inaccurate. (Anne’s prodigious number of failed pregnancies is, alas, a truth.)

Weisz, Stone. Atsushi Nishijima/Fox Searchlight Films via AP

Olivia Colman stars as the dyspeptic Queen Anne — and, in a perfect bit of serendipity, will next year be taking over from Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in the third season of Netflix’s The Crown. Petulant and gouty (as Anne, not Elizabeth), she is close to Lady Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who uses her position to argue on behalf of her husband (Mark Gatiss).

He, in turn, is caught between Godolphin, the Prime Minister (James Smith), and Harley, the leader of the opposition (Nicholas Hoult), on matters of one of those Anglo-French wars that English history can’t do without. Though, truth be told, the men in this movie are mostly pawns. Lady Sarah wields the most power, at least until the arrival of her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), whose circumstances are so low she has nowhere to fall but up.

The cousins are initially coolly civil. “I liked your father,” offers Sarah. “He had charm to burn.” And then, remembering that the man killed himself by setting fire to his house and then staying home, she adds: “And I suppose he did.”

But as Abigail worms her ways into the Queen’s favour, each woman’s arsenal expands from rapier wit to include (if not actual rapiers) flattery, blackmail, assault, poison — real and metaphorical — and sex. Historians are unequally divided as to whether Queen Anne leaned toward lesbianism; The Favourite has her falling over for it.

The tone of the film is at times scattershot, by turns funny, vulgar, both or neither. I have a great example of “both” that includes the word “tongue” and should probably not be printed in the newspaper. In any case, there are far more hits than misses, especially when the wicked screenplay flirts with modernity, as when Harley attempts to enlist Abigail’s services as a spy. “Think on it,” he tells her cheerfully. “No pressure.”

Lanthimos chose to shoot much of the action through a fisheye lens — either that or he forgot to bring any others with him — and throws in some odd elements of sound design. At times, you would swear there’s an argument bleeding through the walls from the cinema next door, while the score alternates between period-appropriate Baroque one minute, then something that sounds like a violin-powered metronome or an 18th-century time bomb.

But these are mere distractions to a darkly funny story of courtly intrigue and noble comeuppance featuring three actors at the peak of their game. Stone, in particular, is very good at never quite letting on — to other characters or indeed the audience — what her endgame is.

When The Killing of a Sacred Deer was befuddling critics at Cannes, Lanthimos went on record that it was a comedy, though few agreed. I don’t know what he meant this one to be, but it’s his funniest by far.

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