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Emma Stone in The Favourite
Emma Stone in The Favourite

The Favourite is a perverse period comedy from the director of The Lobster

Emma Stone, Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Nicholas Hoult star in this visual feast

The scathing Restoration-era comedy of the year has arrived in truly provocative fashion. There's a word for this kind of movie, I learned from editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis in the press notes: it's "Lanthimic." The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos's absurd period epic, opens on the backside of Queen Anne as her dutiful courtiers untether her from her illustrious ermine cape, in all manner of pomp and circumstance according to customs of the royal court. Quickly, we realize that not all is well in the kingdom. Anne, played with tragicomic ferocity by Olivia Colman, is suffering – from vain self-pity, childlike desperation, and deep reservoirs of unseen hurt, yes, but also from a gangrenous condition overtaking her legs, making her scarcely able to walk.

As Anne is wheeled, carried, and/or hobbled from throne to throne and chamber to hippodrome, a brisk dynamic emerges of Anne as the centre of power and emotional gravity in a fickle and treacherous cabinet of aristocrats jockeying for political favour. Her greatest confidant is Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), her lifelong friend and cunning political advisor, who surreptitiously governs from underneath Anne's convalescence – literally, as the two happen to be secret lesbian lovers, according to many an urban legend.

The arrival of Sarah's destitute cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), face-planting in a pile of dung, upsets the rhythms of Sarah’s life more than she realizes, as Abigail dutifully takes on the role of a scullery maid before ingratiating herself to the queen and rising, with Sarah's leadership, through the ranks. Once a lady before being sold into servitude by her gambling father, Abigail is determined to regain her stature by any means necessary.

All the while, the radiantly rococo Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult, if you're feeling sinister) attempts to lure and bully Abigail into a covert manipulation of the queen so that she will drop a landowner's tax and sue France for peace to end the war. It's Sarah versus Harley, leading the Whigs and the Tories, with Abigail playing both sides according to her own self-interest, and the obscene insults and slapstick antics arrive at a brutally satisfying pace. This is high-costume palace intrigue as warfare, played out with the acidic comedic delivery of Winona Ryder in Heathers, thanks to a brilliant and satisfyingly original screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara that should snatch every year-end prize for its sheer audacity of wit.

Each star ascends to unforgettable heights. Weisz, imperious and imposing, commands the screen as Lady Sarah, bringing a true wealth of emotion to a complicated relationship of mercy and loyalty as much as her own convenience and political advantage. As Abigail, Emma Stone delivers her best performance yet, yanking us into her volatile social ascent so that we both root for her and despise her all at once. Vacillating between quick manipulative niceties, barbaric physical pratfalls, and a mesmeric, obsessive ambition – with her first British accent, no less – Stone demonstrates that she is a performer willing to take risks and plunge into character, without losing any of the compelling charms that have made her such a bankable star.

If all of that sounds dizzying enough, I haven't yet mentioned the film's two best performances. As Harley, Nicholas Hoult is given his greatest showcase ever, as a character he was quite possibly born to play. Lanthimos and costume designer Sandy Powell (legend of Shakespeare In LoveVelvet Goldmine, and countless other classics) take outrageous glee in pumping up the ironic gender presentations in the film—the women scarcely wear an ounce of makeup, while the men preen and swan about in towering powdered wigs and heels, and Hoult holds court as the HBIC, in expression and gesture as much as appearance. He gets many of the film's biggest laughs, devouring the screen each time he appears in a performance surely to follow him for the rest of his career.

Plus, everything you've heard about Olivia Colman is true. Queen Anne is the catalyst and the catharsis of the story, eliciting tremendous emotion with her astonishingly physical performance. You will feel pity for England's perhaps most consequential and least revered leader – laughing at her, laughing with her, and sopping up tears as she carries the film's tides of emotion with each withering look and screeching cry.

All of these treasures populate what is surely Lanthimos's most painstakingly realised and self-assured project in a body of work that contains nothing but. Davis and McNamara's savagely funny script has supplied Lanthimos with the ideal vehicle to express his madcap sensibility, employed here with topsy-turvy, widescreen elegance at the hands of cinematographer Robbie Ryan. As we whip-pan in bed chambers and swivel around corners in elliptical fish-eye, we are afforded the experience of a shifty-eyed paranoia, perfectly warranted by a labyrinthine castle filled with terrors and revelations that lurk around every corner. When one character is discharged with a torched cavalry in the night, the deep blues and searing oranges feel expensive and devastating, as much as the candlelit interior scenes evoke Barry Lyndon.

It's a visual feast for the senses on top of being a cruel comedy, and one wonders if there is scarcely a better imaginable combo. The Favourite is the kind of fun we don't have at the movies any more, and for all the rough-and-tumble bitchery that keeps the story hurtling along, the biggest slap to face remains that it had to end at all.

The Favourite will be released in UK cinemas on 1 January 2019