THE FAVOURITE (3 1/2 STARS)
PLOT In 18th-century England, two women vie for the affection of Queen Anne.
CAST Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Olivia Colman
RATED R (language and sexuality)
PLAYING AT Regal Union Square Stadium 14 and AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 in Manhattan.
BOTTOM LINE A delicious, decadent, tragicomic farce with three actresses at the top of their game.
For humanity at its worst, it’s tough to beat the aristocrats of the 18th century. They’re one of our favorite symbols of what happens when a civilization has reached ripeness and begun to rot. Fellini’s “Casanova” depicted them as an idle class drunk on sex but deadened to pleasure; Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” was more interested in their blissful detachment from the masses who paid for their expensive whims. Even movies set in the future, like “The Hunger Games” and “Snowpiercer,” look back to the foppish fashions and powdered wigs of the 1700s to describe the ruling class of their doomed dystopias.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest, “The Favourite,” has an even nastier view than most of this era. The story of the ailing monarch Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her trusted adviser Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and an ambitious scullery maid named Abigail (Emma Stone), “The Favourite” is a bitterly funny farce about power, wealth, class, sex and the things people will do to get — or hold on to — any of it.
At the top of the film's social hierarchy is Queen Anne, a gouty, pouty monarch given to abusive screaming fits and outbreaks of oozing sores. Sarah, a woman with a surgical wit and a strategic mind, knows exactly how to manipulate her unhappy Queen — when to salve her emotional wounds, when to salt them and when to jump into her bed for a secret romp. The only man who seems Sarah’s equal is her enemy Robert Harley, a preening, snarling Tory opposition leader played by an exceptionally good Nicholas Hoult.
Into this snake pit walks Abigail, once a lady, now just a maid, though perhaps not for long. She’s an empathetic character but not an entirely nice one, a Cinderella who aspires to be the wicked stepmother. As Abigail and Sarah jockey for power and resort to increasingly ugly methods — lies, slander, blackmail, poison — our loyalties Ping-Pong rapidly depending on who’s up and who’s down.
Directed with relative restraint by the surreally inclined Lanthimos (“The Lobster”) and blessed with a sophisticated script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, “The Favourite” feels like a heady mix of “Barry Lyndon” and “Pink Flamingos,” by turns gorgeous and grotesque. Underneath the catty dialogue and absurdist humor, though, lies a chilling awareness of how injustice, oppression and cruelty can curdle even those at the very top.
Emma Stone made her film debut in 2007 at the age of 19; 10 years later, she won an Oscar. Here’s a look back at four milestones in her fast-rising career.
SUPERBAD (2007) After working in television for several years, Stone made her big-screen debut in this Judd Apatow-produced comedy. She’s the love interest for a hapless high-school senior played by Jonah Hill.
CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE (2011) Stone’s first pairing with Ryan Gosling came in this romantic dramedy from writer Dan Fogelman (television’s “This Is Us”). He’s a slick pickup artist, she’s the only woman who says no.
ALOHA (2015) Cameron Crowe’s incoherent romance remains one of the decade’s biggest misfires, despite the star power of Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams, John Krasinski and others. Stone took more heat than most for playing an Asian woman named Allison Ng.
LA LA LAND (2016) The third meetup between Stone and Gosling (following 2013’s “Gangster Squad”) proved a charm, earning each an Oscar nod and her a win. The film won six Academy Awards overall.
— RAFER GUZMAN