From the postmodern domestic sadism of “Dogtooth” to the leadenly fateful “mythic” phantasmagoria of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” I can’t say the cinema of Yorgos Lanthimos has ever been my cup of high-end art poison. Yet even from my doubting vantage, it’s hard to deny that Lanthimos has found an ideal vehicle for his pitiless gaze and darkly mocking formal severity in “The Favourite.” It’s a perfectly cut diamond of a movie — a finely executed, coldly entertaining entry in the genre of savage misanthropic baroque costume drama. Set in the court of Queen Anne during the early 1700s, with jaunty dollops of classical music playing in heavily ironic counterpart to all the low-minded chicanery, the movie is “Barry Lyndon” meets “Dangerous Liaisons” meets “All About Eve,” with blood flourishes lifted from Peter Greenaway. Lanthimos, try as he might, will never be Stanley Kubrick, but he doesn’t have to be. He’s a Kubrick Lite stylist who, when he doesn’t get overly pretentious about it, knows how to make an outré story singe and connect.
In “The Favourite,” Lanthimos sends his camera gliding through the halls and chambers of a castle that looks sprawling and ornate enough to be Blenheim Palace. The walls are made of wood, the carved ceilings are impossibly tall, and the director’s promiscuous use of wide-angle lenses only serves to enlarge rooms that are already as big as basketball courts. Inside the rooms, there’s a sense of debauched pageantry: rouged old men in wigs that come halfway down their backs, cackling as they engage in pastimes like indoor duck races, and the posh ladies and courtly vipers who stroll through the corridors dropping lines like, “Would you like a bite of my new maid before you leave?”
Yes, it’s one of those movies: a vision of life in which epigrams are used like daggers, everyone is scheming against everyone else, and manners are the thin veneer of civilization that force people to act like “polite” hypocrites. Yet there’s a place in the universe for this sort of Masterpiece Theatre of Doom haughty cutthroat classicism; every once in a while, it can be a toxic tonic. “The Favourite,” written with icy eloquence by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and directed by Lanthimos with a lavish cunning that shows off what a craftsman he can be, is good enough to qualify as a jaded gem. Our society, if anything, is in a darker place now than it was when “Barry Lyndon” or “Dangerous Liaisons” came out. “The Favourite” revels in its posh inhumanity, but that only makes it seem in tune with the times. It’s poised to be a specialty hit and, possibly, an awards player.
In essence, the movie is a tooth-and-claw duel of elegant backstabbing that plays out between two cousins, who are played with contrasting styles of devious finesse by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. Weisz, reuniting with Lanthimos after “The Lobster,” is Lady Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, who has grown up as the trusted servant and confidante of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), a ruler who, to put it mildly, is not in good shape. She suffers a rash of ailments, which hobble her spirit, but the health problems play as emanations of her depression. She’s a woman of swirling emotion, but not all there. (She’s devoted to her pet bunny rabbits.) So Lady Sarah rules her from the sidelines, telling the queen what to do, even when it comes to the controversial war with France that England is embroiled in.
Enter Abigail (Stone), Sarah’s cousin, who was once a lady herself, but whose father gambled away his fortune and his good name. He even gambled away Abigail, who to pay off a debt was given to a German man she grew up sleeping with. How’s that for up-for-to-the-minute old-fashioned depravity? Abigail arrives at the castle with nothing (she’s even dunked in manure), but Lady Sarah puts her to work as a scullery maid, and it’s there that Abigail, with her grace and charm intact, begins to plot her rise. Stone makes her sweet and graceful on the surface but with a heart of tick-tock calculation. Yet the real trick of her performance is that even as we see what a schemer she is, we don’t necessarily recoil. “The Favourite” is a sick-joke morality play in which the message is: Every woman has her reasons.
What defines this genre, as much as lying, cheating, blackmail, and the selling of oneself sexually for worldly gain, is that beneath the luxe surface of splendid rooms and upholstered costumes, the film seems to be smacking its lips at the corruption on display. But not always. “The Favourite” is a black comedy of conniving, yet though Weisz and Stone are playing ruthless rivals, neither character is driven by unfiltered malevolence. They’re using their talons to survive, and to find a place in a society that does them no favors. They’re like Jane Austen characters for whom ambition has been heightened into killer instinct.
Weisz, pale with hauteur, speaking in crisp tones of self-interest, lets Abigail know — especially when they’re shooting ducks together — that she’s able to form alliances, but that she’s no one’s friend. She’s doing all she can to keep England’s war going (though only because she believes in it politically — she thinks the country could sink if it loses), and considering that her own husband is one of the army’s commanders, that’s putting herself on the line. There isn’t much Abigail can do to find her footing until she discovers, through eavesdropping, a scandalous secret: Lady Sarah and the queen are more than friends. That lets Abigail know just how to curry the queen’s favor.
This clawingly competitive political-erotic triangle is at the center of the movie, with a few key men as supporting scoundrels. Nicholas Hoult, as insinuating as he is tall, makes his presence felt as Harley, the caustic fop who represents the land owners (he’s fighting to cut the taxes that are paying for the war, and is therefore Lady Sarah’s enemy), and Joe Alwyn is Masham, the empty-headed court hunk who Abigail ardently woos — but the second she marries him, we see, on a bitterly hilarious wedding night, what he means to her.
“The Favourite” comes off as an upper-crust concoction, but it’s rooted in events and relationships that really took place. That’s most apparent in the character of Queen Anne, played by Olivia Colman (from “The Crown” and “The Lobster”) as a genuine dysfunctional monarch. She’s a creature of drooping but vibrant flesh, and of epic mood swings: now raging, now stubborn, now malleable, now lusty, now scalded by pain, now consumed with melancholia. Yet Colman, who’s like Melissa McCarthy as a tragicomic figure, somehow melds those moods into one majestically mercurial presence, as the queen tries to regain herself. She’s the most soulful character in a movie that says that too much soul, in a world as ruthless as this one, is something you can’t afford to have.