A Royal Romp

Rating: 4

Behold Olivia Colman. She is quite marvellous in The Favourite, playing Queen Anne like you’ve never seen a British monarch ever played before.

Colman blows away co-stars of the calibre of Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, who play the two women vying for the Queen’s affections, both physical and emotional in this period yomp from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, who shoots it like a man so bored by years of costume dramas he’ll do anything to subvert tradition.

It’s funny and bitter, violent and tender, beautiful yet horrific. The male courtiers (including Mark Gatiss and Nicholas Hoult) cavort and mince, with Restoration wigs and New Romantic pop video beauty spots, doling out witticisms, political edicts and battle cries. They fawn and whimper but can’t grasp at power. 

That is in Her Majesty’s gift only, and Olivia Colman’s Anne will bestow her favours on whom she pleases – it could be her confidant Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (the coolly scheming, dead-eyed Weisz) or the upstart, burningly ambitious scullery maid Abigail (Stone), who works her way up because she knows how to apply poultices and ease gout. Mostly, the Queen’s affections are saved for her 17 rabbits, surrogates each for lost babies.

Yes, there’s a bit of Blackadder in here, too (it’s like the lost series, somewhere between II and III, banned for obscenity), but Sandy Powell’s fabulous Westwood-inflected costumes give it the status of art and the scope of a magnificently horrendous giant painting, while Colman puts such manic grief into her portrayal of a Queen we’ve rarely seen that you can’t fail to be moved by the blackness and dishevelment of her antics.

It’s a full-body performance; you can see the heart and soul beating as her lips quiver, her eyes burn, her body sags with pain, even her teeth seem to be acting, gnashing and snarling trying to sate Anne’s desire to be taken seriously in a world of popinjay boys. And what a script, what a situation. It’s true, mostly, yet feels made up. Deborah Davis wrote it nearly 20 years ago, when nobody wanted to see a movie about three women ruling the country from a four-poster bed. Now all the frills and furbelows unfurl with a ferocity and biting wit, so much subtext, and such a battle.

The Favourite isn’t all laughs. It’s cruel and vicious and everyone’s fighting, pecking away, scratching and gouging, like the cocks. Although it always looks wonderful, like a riot in a stately home, an album cover shoot on too many drugs. You don’t love it but you can’t take your eyes off it for a second or you’ll miss a beat, or a look or a barb. And Olivia Colman emerges from the wreckage with the crown still on her head, no matter how wonkily she wears it.