“The Favourite” is perhaps the first comedy from Yorgos Lanthimos, a filmmaker more often described as an auteur than a director. His previous outings have included realistic-looking stories with strange twists — a young man who must find a mate or be turned into an animal (“The Lobster”,) a doctor whose blackmailer threatens magically to paralyze and kill the doctor’s family (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”.)
This film is set in a little-studied period of English history during the reign of Queen Anne (the very good Olivia Colman), a querulous, gout-ridden, overweight dowager married to a Danish prince (who is not named Hamlet and who is absent from the story in any event.) The queen’s 17 pregnancies have yielded no children who lived past the age of two; the movie exaggerates her pathos by having her dote on 17 cute bunny rabbits who share her bedchamber.
Anyway, England is at war with France, as usual, and Anne is bossed around by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz,) whose husband is leading the war effort. Historical reports suggest that Anne deferred almost entirely to Sarah, but not that Sarah necessarily satisfied Anne’s sexual desires or that she enjoyed striding around and shooting birds in a fancy white jacket and black breeches.
Into the mix comes Abigail (Emma Watson,) an impoverished cousin of Sarah’s who takes a job as a palace maid. Abigail maneuvers herself into Anne’s favor with skin-calming herbs and also sex, threatening Sarah’s influence with the queen.
A battle royal ensues. The question is whether Abigail is ruthless enough to beat Sarah at Sarah’s own game. This rivalry to influence Queen Anne did in fact happen, but its purpose in the movie seems mostly to accommodate amped-up ribaldry.
Meanwhile, the English parliament is a bunch of scheming but feckless men in historically inaccurate but extremely styled periwigs and, occasionally, dots of rouge on their cheeks; the Tories and Whigs are divided on further pursuit of the war.
In the film fashion of the current moment, the female leads are smarter and bolder than the foppish second-banana male characters. The formerly gentler sex now is playing catch-up — understandable, given history.
Some people find “The Favourite” laugh-out-loud funny, and some scenes made me smile. In the end, however, it’s difficult to enjoy the idea that the elites of two centuries ago were just as smutty and crude as the ones we have today.