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D: Yorgos Lanthimos / 119m

Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, Mark Gatiss, James Smith, Jenny Rainsford

England, 1708. Queen Anne (Colman) is on the throne, but the real power lies with Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz), the Queen’s best friend, confidante, and lover. Sarah counsels the Queen on almost every matter that comes before her, and uses Anne’s malleability to promote her own political agenda. The arrival of a destitute cousin of Sarah’s, Abigail Hill (Stone), prompts the beginning of a power struggle between the two women, as they vie for the Queen’s attention, both in and out of the bed chamber. Sarah’s experience proves no match for Abigail’s determination to see her social status restored to her, and the on-going war with France that Sarah is supporting is undermined by Abigail’s mutually beneficial allegiance with politician Robert Harley (Hoult). With Anne’s health worsening due to gout, Abigail aims to supplant Sarah once and for all, and arranges for her to be missing from court. As Anne becomes more and more dependant on Abigail’s presence, and gives her blessing to an advantageous marriage to a courtier, Samuel Masham (Alwyn), Sarah returns to make one last effort to overturn Abigail’s influence, and restore her own position with the Queen…

For most people, The Favourite will be seen in 2019. There will be other historical movies that will carry over from 2018 and reach their intended audience, but it’s a sure bet that Yorgos Lanthimos’ ebullient follow up to The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) will be unlike any other. A riotous mix of scabrous comedy, intelligently handled drama, bawdy romance, political intrigue, and ferocious oneupmanship (oneupwomanship?), this plays fast and loose with historical accuracy (though the three-way affair depicted actually happened), and instead opts for being a rambunctious send up of both the times and the people who lived through them. Working from a glorious screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Lanthimos has fashioned his most accessible movie to date, and one that offers a plethora of riches. First and foremost are the fierce, redoubtable performances of its trio of female leads, all of whom attack the material with undisguised relish, and all of whom give superb portrayals of women for whom men are either to be used, or ignored, or both. Harley is the principal male protagonist, and in any other movie he would emerge triumphant with all of his ambitions achieved, and stronger than ever. Here he achieves his ambitions, but the audience knows that it’s just a matter of time before his position will collapse into political and personal ruin.

With gender reversals of this type firmly on display (and encouraged), Lanthimos gives his cast full rein to inhabit their roles with gusto. Weisz is condescending and vampish as Sarah, a career manipulator who finds herself surprisingly ill-equipped to deal with Abigail’s more straightforward manoeuvrings. Stone is a revelation, portraying an historical character so far removed from her previous acting roles that her confidence is often astonishing; she embues Abigail with such a sweet-natured viciousness that you have no idea just what she’ll do next. And then there’s Colman, towering over both of them, her performance a thing of magnificent yet focused excess, railing against imagined injustices one moment, dew-eyed and poignant the next as Anne remembers her seventeen dead children. It all takes place against the sumptuous backdrop of Hatfield House, its rooms and corridors given tremendous presence in the movie thanks to the use of fisheye lenses and wide shots, making it another character altogether, one whose size helps to put the machinations of its human counterparts into stark relief for their transitory nature. But even with all this – and a terrific soundtrack as well – it’s the interlocking relationships between Anne, Sarah and Abigail, all counter turns and devious switches, that hold the attention and prove the most rewarding part of a movie that has so much to offer that it’s almost embarrassing.

Rating: 9/10 – Lanthimos’ auteur leanings are still on display, but here he’s at his most relaxed and amenable, and the result is that The Favourite is easily his best movie so far; a movie to wallow in over and over again, it is richly detailed, formidably acted, wickedly perverse, beautifully shot (by Robbie Ryan), and a pure delight from beginning to end.