Yorgos Lanthimos' "The Favourite," a wicked blast of nasty fun, gleefully dispenses with the usual decorum of the period drama to free its powerhouse trio of actresses — Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz — in a deliciously performed romp through the wigs and corsets of 18th century British aristocracy.
That the acting — and that includes the spectacular supporting player Nicolas Hoult, too, as Tory leader Robert Harley — should be such a feast in Lanthimos' latest is a surprise. His earlier films ("The Lobster," ''The Killing of a Sacred Deer," ''Dogtooth") were intentionally performed in a flat, emotionless manner that seldom rose above an awkward monotone.
But the brisker "The Favourite" is, to a degree, a departure for Lanthimos who this time is working from a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara instead of his usual collaborator, Efthimis Filippou. "The Favourite" is no less vicious or pitiless than their previous films, nor does Lanthimos (surprise, surprise) find the customs of early 1700s English royals any less grotesque than the contemporary norms he's so savagely satirized before.
Yet "The Favourite," a kind of "All About Eve" translated into a triangular power struggle in Queen Anne's court, is indeed a riot, albeit a frigid and disquieting one. And it's not just because Lanthimos favors anachronism over historical accuracy. (Both modern-day slang and dance moves make cameos.) It's the pleasure of seeing three of the finest actresses weave between one another in ever more absurd acts of seduction and betrayal.
In a rickety and crowded carriage, we arrive in Queen Anne's court with Abigail (Stone), a distant relative of the queen who, having been lost by her father in a game of cards, has slipped out of the nobility. She's desperate to restore her standing with a position in the royal household, and after initially being sent to scrub floors, the Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill (Weisz), takes her on a chambermaid.
Our glimpses of Abigail's so-called "diminished circumstances" (including more than one face-first pushes into the mud) are vivid enough to earn our sympathies and warrant her increasingly cold-blooded tactics for elevation. In one of many such transactional exchanges, Abigail allows a more high-born man into her chamber at night and asks if he's there to rape her or seduce her. "I'm a gentleman," he defensively protests. "Rape then," she matter-of-factly replies.
Through cunning, blackmail and flattery, Abigail soon has the ear of Queen Anne (Colman), not to mention her bed, a newfound status at odds with the queen's previous confidante and lover, Sarah. Weisz's duchess is using her position with the queen to extend the war with France, and her methods of manipulation are far more aggressively controlling. But they are also more straightforward than Abigail's hollow appeasements. In one scene, Sarah deters Anne from a meeting with the prime minister by holding up a mirror to her make-up-caked face: "You look like a badger." As Abigail emerges as a rival, Sarah, icy and formidable, doesn't shy away from the fight. "I have a thing for the weak," she says.
Through wide-angled and fish-eye lenses Lanthimos tracks the three-sided drama, pulling it toward its most primal expressions. These characters may live in lavish opulence but beneath their powdered faces they are primitive and power hungry. So Lanthimos lingers on a surreal slow-motion duck race down a palace hall and the agony of Anne's gout, scored with an eerie single piano note and a scratchy violin.
Much of "The Favourite" is caustically clever but it's Colman who elevates it to something magnificent. Her Anne is a glorious and sad ruin of a queen, a woman wrecked by time and heartache. (She keeps 18 bunnies, one for each child that didn't live.) Her interest in keeping up with her royal duties has comically disintegrated. In her flowing gowns, she's like a puddle. Weepy and lonely, she's torn between her suitors.
With its spurts of violence, splashes of blood and cynical sexual encounters, "The Favourite" is, oddly enough, about love. In their opposite ways, Sarah and Abigail offer a melancholy dichotomy: Love is either flattery and false, or honest and abusive.
In other words, the only true love is telling someone they look like a badger.
"The Favourite," a Fox Searchlight release, is rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and language. Running time: 120 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.