Among the many daft pleasures of “The Favourite” is watching three talented actresses from different corners of the pop-culture universe go at each other with minds, mettle, and manipulation. Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman — it’s fun just to think of them in the same thought, let alone on the same screen.
The movie itself is great fun before it curdles intentionally into nastiness and drift. “The Favourite” is set in the early 18th century, during the reign of Queen Anne, and it plays like a posh “Masterpiece Theatre” period piece with a jolt of Machiavellian wit. “The Queen” grafted onto “Dangerous Liaisons,” “All About Eve” with wigs and corsets, “Mean Girls” by way of Bunuel: Whatever, the film’s a hoot until it gives you and everyone in it the hotfoot.
Anne was the last of the Stuarts before the Georges I through IV came in, and Colman plays her as a gouty, gloomy, infantile terror, earning sympathy for her 17 lost children and fear for her entitled outbursts. This is a magnificent performance of a pathetic monster, and it makes one eager for Colman’s playing of an older Elizabeth II in the upcoming season of Netflix’s “The Crown.”
As may be historically accurate, England is ruled less by Anne than by her steely closest companion, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. Weisz’s natural coldness serves the part well: Lady Marlborough effectively runs the country and is in fact a skilled stateswoman and tactician who promotes her favorites in government and keeps the War of the Spanish Succession rumbling forward.
“The Favourite” is about Lady Marlborough’s upending at the hands of a poor relation, Abigail Hill (Stone) — again, a historical figure — who is hired on as a scullery maid and works her way into and up the palace hierarchy through sweetness, guile, and deviously deployed strategems. Plus, it’s Emma Stone, so how can you not root for her?
Here’s where I tell you the film has been directed (from a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) by Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek filmmaker who’s something of a terror himself. “The Lobster,” with its allegory of lonely hearts who turn into animals, was the bad-date movie of 2015, and last year’s “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” seemed designed for maximum audience punishment. “The Favourite” is by far Lanthimos’s most user-friendly work to date, but it does little to dispel the sense that he’s a supremely gifted filmmaker with his head at least partways up his colon.
Plenty of directors crib from the films of Stanley Kubrick; Lanthimos is notable for stealing mostly the bad bits. “The Favourite” goes all in on the fish-eye lens shots, perhaps to cram as much as possible of the palatial Hatfield House, in Hertfordshire, where the movie was filmed, but also to caricature the people into ironic cartoons. The score, alternating among period euphony, minimalist scrawk, and mighty blasts of church organ, is meant as an irritant and functions accordingly.
Yet all this self-conscious artifice often works to the movie’s advantage. It’s an entire world of artifice into which we’re peering, where the wiggy peruques on men like Harley (Nicholas Hoult), Lady Marlborough’s Whigrival, tower higher than the social airs, and where the more gracious the characters seem, the more venal and carnal and vengeful their intentions and actions are. This is the kind of movie where someone will brightly say, “Let’s go shoot something!” and you’re not sure whether they mean pigeons or each other.
An audience places its trust in any character here at its own peril, and “The Favourite” stands to first bewitch and then appall tender-hearted Emma Stone fans expecting an “Easy A.” That actress has been spreading her wings wisely and well in recent years, and this is her most confident flight yet. That she just about holds her own against Weisz and especially Colman may be — and I think Stone herself might agree — the highest praise imaginable.
“The Favourite” turns increasingly surreal as it heads into its endgame. Up to then we’ve seen the odd modern touch — a slang word here, a 21st-century dance move there — dropped into the proceedings like an iPad at a coronation. The final scenes creep gently toward an apocalypse of entropy. Colman’s Anne’s physical infirmities and tantrums become more alarming, and we’re invited to contemplate the moral vacuum — the complete and total loss of human feeling — in those who exercise absolute power.
It may seem like “The Favourite” is making a statement on the politics and politicians of today. That’s giving Lanthimos too much credit. The rot in his universe and in this movie resides in humanity’s very DNA, and it cuts both easy and deep.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Starring Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, Nicholas Hoult. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner. 121 minutes. R (strong sexual content, nudity, language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.