Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos has a knack for satire, psychological warfare and horror with films like "The Lobster," "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" and "Dogtooth." His latest is tragicomedy "The Favourite," and while it takes liberties with 18th-century historical figures, this ain't your regular period piece.
In the first few scenes, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) verbally manhandles Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), calling her "a badger," and a carriage ride for Abigail (Emma Stone) ends with a masturbating man grabbing her rear end.
There's a brewing cruelty here, survival is paramount, and you see how relationships maneuver history.
Olivia Colman snagged a Golden Globe on Sunday for her role as Anne, a whining royal with more ailments than meets the eye. Colman plays royalty in TV's "The Crown," and here, she expertly executes the pain and absurdity of this film.
Rachel Weisz is exquisite as Sarah. (Both worked with director Lanthimos in "The Lobster.") She's razor-sharp and cocksure in gowns and royal riding gear, spitting orders and insults with a spot-on cheekiness. Her emotions seem impenetrable, and what Weisz allows out takes calculated skill.
Emma Stone sails in as Abigail, a down-on-her-luck former aristocrat who needs a job. She's somehow wide-eyed, tough-as-nails and dichotomous; at times, it's as if she's fooling you.
In a scene, Harley (Nicholas Hoult) is probing Abigail for information, and she ends the interrogation with fake tears. Later, in a standoff with Sarah, she asks for forgiveness, explaining she needed to protect herself. Moments later, she lets out a dismissive laugh-snort.
Supporting players Hoult, Joe Alwyn and James Smith dot the scene. But this is all about the women, their triangular struggle for power and favor - unique for Hollywood and costume dramas.
Prepare for rape jokes and a common British term that starts with "c."
There's also play with gender politics with comments like "your mascara's running" and wig piece mockery in men, and there may be political parallels about people in power.
Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara temper biting dialogue and verbal abuse with enough almost-unexpected heart to keep you grounded, and the trio of actresses execute with nuance and poignancy.
Director Lanthimos uses slow motion and a fisheye lens as clues to his characters' internal piques - dressing and grimacing from pain, during an unsolicited bedroom visit, a stroll through a long hallway. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan ("American Honey") uses a palette of cool grays and stark contrasts in blacks, browns and cloudy natural light. Costuming by Sandy Powell is also monochromatic, with characters most always dressed in black, as if in a constant state of bereavement.
Right before the credits, Lanthimos goes avant garde for the first time in this film. It's a sequence that disturbs on a near David Lynchian level, highlighting the unseen internal casualties of war.
In a time of #TimesUp and people joining together, this scene, this film, leaves a haunting aftertaste and a gratitude for progress. It's worth seeing.
Starring: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writers: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Rating: R for for strong sexual content, nudity and language
Now showing: Zinema 2