TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "The Favourite" from the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is a hysterical comedy-drama set in 18th century England starring Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as two women vying for the favor of the ailing Queen Anne. The film won a screenplay award at the Venice International Film Festival where Olivia Colman was named best actress for her performance as the queen. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: From his early Greek films like "Dogtooth" to his more recent English language movies like "The Lobster," the director Yorgos Lanthimos has always enjoyed observing human beings under glass. His surreal deadpan satires sometimes play like elaborate behavioral experiments set in absurd but rigorously controlled environments. You can see what might have drawn him to the pompous rituals and excesses of the British monarchy, specifically the 18th century reign of Queen Anne, the backdrop for the wickedly entertaining and superbly acted costume drama "The Favourite." It's a bawdy, blisteringly funny movie drawn from a real-life historical episode. The screenwriters, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, construct an intricate psychological triangle involving the queen, played by a magnificent Olivia Colman, and two women competing for her favor, played by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. The result isn't as violent or out there as Lanthimos' earlier pictures, but it's by far his most fully realized and emotionally resonant work. The three central characters and their motivations are so sharply drawn that for once, they don't feel trapped by Lanthimos' cruelly pessimistic worldview. The story's most powerful figure is also its most pathetic. Queen Anne is a regal wreck of a woman, her body prone to attacks of gout and her heart ravaged by grief at the many children she's lost over the years.
Her most trusted friend and consort is Lady Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, played by Rachel Weisz as a scheming viper who ruthlessly manipulates the queen behind closed doors. She coddles Anne like a child one minute, viciously insults her the next and some nights, seduces her in the privacy of the royal bed chamber. Sarah controls the queen so completely that she's effectively calling the shots in England's ongoing war with France, a conflict that remains entirely offscreen.
But her situation becomes a bit more precarious when her cousin, a commoner named Abigail, arrives at the palace seeking employment and begins working as a servant. Abigail is played by Emma Stone. And although she endures some harsh physical punishment at first, she's resourceful enough to worm her way into a position as one of the queen's attendants. At one point, Abigail serves hot chocolate to Anne and Sarah as the two discuss the war, a scene that ends like many - in bitter humiliation for the queen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FAVOURITE")
OLIVIA COLMAN: (As Anne) All the people are really angry about the land tax.
RACHEL WEISZ: (As Sarah) They'll be angrier when the French are sodomizing their wives and planting their fields with garlic.
COLMAN: (As Anne) The Tories must not be rode roughshod over, though. And more dead if we do it.
WEISZ: (As Sarah) It is painful to lose men, but we cannot be half-hearted in this or they will see our weakness and take us, and we will lose thousands more. None for the queen.
COLMAN: (As Anne) What?
WEISZ: (As Sarah) Well, you cannot have hot chocolate. Your stomach, the sugar enflames it.
COLMAN: (As Anne) Abigail, hand me that cup.
WEISZ: (As Sarah) Do not.
EMMA STONE: (As Abigail) I'm sorry, I do not know what to do.
WEISZ: (As Sarah) Oh, fine. Give it to her. Then you can get a bucket and a mop for the aftermath.
CHANG: With its delectable wit and devilish sense of gamesmanship, "The Favourite," at times, suggests a sly, historical riff on "All About Eve," only with more swear words and sexual power plays. Your sympathies are forever being tugged this way and that. And Robbie Ryan's cinematography brilliantly captures that sense of flux as he sends the camera hurtling from one end of the queen's chamber to the other. For all the gilded furnishings of Fiona Crombie's production design and Sandy Powell's gorgeous costumes, "The Favourite" doesn't just feel sumptuous. It feels gloriously alive. There are a few men hovering on the periphery, like Sarah's political nemesis Harley, played by Nicholas Hoult, who tries to turn Abigail into an ally.
But the pleasure of the movie comes from watching these three remarkable women, their escalating stakes and startling reversals of fortune. Every one of them turns out to be more complex and surprising than you might think. As cold-blooded as Weisz's Sarah is, there's something admirable about her brutal honesty, which she claims is a sign of her genuine devotion to the queen. Stone, by contrast, is a mercurial delight. Beneath her warm smile and spirited demeanor, her Abigail turns out to be every bit as wily as Sarah and, arguably, even more calculating.
As for Olivia Colman, who will soon succeed Claire Foy as Elizabeth II on the Netflix series "The Crown," her performance here is nothing short of astonishing. Her Anne is, by turns, pitiful and majestic, beautiful and grotesque - a childlike creature who has endured several lifetimes' worth of tragedy. She's the achingly human centerpiece of a movie that means to be far more than a standard historical costume drama, and thereby emerges as the finest historical costume drama in ages.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. On the next FRESH AIR...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE WILL ROCK YOU")
QUEEN: (Singing) We will, we will rock you.
GROSS: My guest will be Rami Malek. He plays Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, in the new film "Bohemian Rhapsody." Malek also stars in the TV series "Mr. Robot." Join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE WILL ROCK YOU")
QUEEN: (Singing) We will, we will rock you. Buddy, you're an old man, poor man pleading with your eyes gonna make you some peace some day. You got mud on your face, big disgrace. Somebody better put you back into your place. We will, we will rock you. Sing it. We will, we will rock you. Everybody, we will, we will rock you. We will, we will...
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story incorrectly states that "The Favourite" won a screenplay award at the Venice Film Festival. It won the Grand Jury Prize.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.