‘The Favourite’ review: Olivia Colman is a marvel as Queen Anne in debauched dark comedy

‘The Favourite’ 

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz

Rated R

Rachel Weisz, one of the stars of “The Favourite,” has described the movie as a “high-stakes ‘Mean Girls’” in the court of the early 18th century British monarch Queen Anne.

While that’s certainly a fair elevator pitch for what to expect from the film, it also undersells the latest from Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek filmmaker who has specialized in creatively disturbing dark comedies such as “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.”

In telling this story, which chronicles the rivalry between Sarah Churchill (Weisz) and her cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) for the affections of the queen (marvelously played here by Olivia Colman, who remains a seriously underappreciated actor), Lanthimos takes a great deal of pleasure in depicting the scheming involved. The movie has a core of dry, biting wit, focusing on characters who are intelligent enough to recognize the game they’re playing and to relish the competition. There is no one being conned or manipulated here.

The on-screen debauchery extends to wild swings of emotion and sudden violent outbursts; in the world of “The Favourite,” the monarch might randomly scream in your face; books can be hurled in your direction; a gun is prone to being fired dangerously close to your head; a quick, casual shove down a hill is designed to send a message. There are also scenes of frenzied court parties, involving barnyard animals and jesters, and the pervading sense of a royal institution that has collapsed in on itself.

Like other Lanthimos movies, “The Favourite” can be a trying and abrasive experience. His movies purposefully have the collective effect of nails scraping a chalkboard or a screeching, wrong note played by a violinist. This is not accessible, sumptuous entertainment, and it’s rarely funny in a laugh-out-loud sense.

In stepping away from screenwriting duties for the first time in his feature film career (the script is by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara), Lanthimos somewhat moderates his most sinister instincts. But with the relentless plotting on screen frequently presented with the distorted perspective of fisheye lenses, as blaring alarm sounds punctuate the score, the picture remains wholly consistent with this director’s distinctly postmodern vision. This is the 18th century seen through a decidedly modern lens.

Historians would, then, quibble with the veracity of the events presented in “The Favourite.” But there is a larger, elemental truth to this story that is both specific to this moment in history and decidedly applicable to just about any other. That lies in the portrait of a detached, deranged aristocracy, fronted by a ruler so removed from the needs of her subjects that she and her court fiddle around with insular, selfish plots for power while war and starvation run rampant outside the palace gates. Sounds familiar, no?

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