Review: The Favourite is a magnificently pissy comedy of manners

Yorgos Lanthimos’s historical picture features a starry cast trading veiled insults and clearly having a great time

THE FAVOURITE (Yorgos Lanthimos). 119 minutes. Opens Friday (December 7). See listing. Rating: NNNN

After the poisonous rigour of The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, The Favourite feels like Yorgos Lanthimos is letting himself loosen up: all the characters in The Favourite are awful, but that just means we can enjoy the plotting and scheming without guilt.

The Favourite is a magnificently pissy comedy of manners set in the early 18th century, in the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Anne is aging and infirm, and England is at war, and her most trusted courtier is the Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the wife of the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss). 

The arrival of Sarah’s penniless cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) upends the pleasantries Sarah is charming and eager to befriend the queen in a bid to regain her former high station. And when Anne responds – and the snotty parliamentarian Harley (Nicholas Hoult) sees an opportunity to use their budding friendship as a lever for his own ambitions – Sarah feels threatened, and sets out to derail the friendship and scuttle Abigail’s aspirations. But of course Abigail is ready for this.

All three leads are having the very best time, trading veiled insults with crack timing – and occasionally revealing the rage beneath a courtier’s protocol. Stone’s good, Weisz is better and Colman is best, her alternately imperious and miserably self-pitying monarch as much a victim as any of her subjects. And Hoult, Gatiss and Joe Alwyn are nicely cast as the feckless dicks trying to impose themselves on these women, convinced they know best and almost certainly wrong.

Which isn’t to say that some of these characters don’t deserve to suffer more than others, and do. Lanthimos and screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara encourage us to delight in the misery, distracting us from the wounds (both emotional and physical) that accrue as The Favourite zips along.

When it comes time to take stock of the damage, it’s almost shocking. Which is precisely the point, of course: it’s all fun and games until someone loses their soul.

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