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The Favourite ***

A bawdy, cheekily subversive romp that pokes fun at early 18th century sexual mores and the Darwinian politics of running a monarchy, Yorgos Lanthimos' fish-eyed costume lark is a hoot and a half, at least until it hits a tone-shifting wall late in the game.  

Is it worth $10? Yes  

What kind of period piece is “The Favourite”? So glad you asked. It's the kind of British monarchy tale that shows a scheming lass knocked to the ground, twice, in order to convey how women were regarded as property for men to do as they please. Then it proceeds to stage that treatment as a running gag. It's a female-empowerment comedy of bad manners in tea-and-crumpets clothing, “Dangerous Liaisons” with naughtier zingers. Think of what an auteur like Pedro Almodóvar might have done to “Barry Lyndon,” then add a healthy dollop of misanthropy, and you get the impertinent picture. A lot of it is so wrong, yet it (mostly) feels so right.

That misanthropy comes courtesy of director Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek enfant terrible who  assaulted moviegoers' sensibilities in movies like the deadpan dysfunctional family comedy “Dogtooth” and the dystopian satire “The Lobster,” the latter of which imagined a not-so-distant future where you get turned into an animal of your choosing if you're unable to find a life partner. “The Favourite” is the first Lanthimos joint I've seen where he is not a credited screenwriter, but even as whole chunks of it play like he came into this project as a hired gun, it also shows the idiosyncratic filmmaker can work well with others and still retain his cheerfully pessimistic voice.

It helps that he's working from a razor-sharp, neatly constructed screenplay, by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, that divides screen time equally, or just about, between a sensational central trio. A generous portion of it is told from the point of view of Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who serves in part as audience surrogate to the splendor and perils of Queen Anne's court. Abigail finds work as a scullery maid in Kensington Palace, but two things soon become clear: She wasn't always a maid, and she has her eye on a higher station. How high?

Enter Abigail's cousin, Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz, pitch perfect), Duchess of Marlborough, who currently has the favor of Her Royal Majesty (a sublime Olivia Colman) in affairs of state, and as Abigail finds out, matters of the heart. Sarah is sincerely sorry to hear her younger cousin was given away to a rather unsavory German by her drunken lout of a father to settle his debts, so she puts in a good word, but keeps her on a tight leash.

The devil's dance that unfolds between the two women and Queen Anne incorporates sexual shenanigans, wartime policy and a ruler's whims into a potent cocktail of sly machinations, tart-tongued putdowns and one-up(wo)manship that pits the cousins against each other in increasingly ruthless ways. (Fox Searchlight is clearly committing category fraud by submitting Weisz and Stone as supporting players for award consideration, but Colman stands to benefit from this decision.) Through it all, the men are amusing at best, ineffectual and disposable at worst. So kudos to the esteemed Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn for providing sturdy support as, respectively, an astute member of Parliament and a baron who tries to woo Abigail despite her lower placement in the totem pole.

But wait, you might point out, haven't claims that Queen Anne enjoyed the intimate company of women been dismissed by historians as no more than nasty gossip spread by the vengeful real-life Sarah? To which the makers of “The Favourite” say, who the hell cares? Lanthimos and his creative team rub your face in their disregard for historical accuracy, even as production designer Fiona Crombie (the 2015 production of “Macbeth” starring Michael Fassbender) and costume designer Sandy Powell (“Shakespeare in Love, “Mary Poppins Returns”) deliver intricate, obsessively detailed work. A midway-point dance sequence, for instance, strikes an agreeably buffoonish chord yet feels thoroughly modern.

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“The Favourite” bears the hallmarks of a 1970s costume drama. Think Kubrick with a dash of Zeffirelli, only on uppers, more politically inclined ... and hornier. Lanthimos keeps the pace snappy, the tone gleeful (thank you very much, editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis), and the visuals off-kilter. I've heard grumblings that cinematographer Robbie Ryan abuses the wide-angle lens, but his skewed compositions fit the twisted narrative like a jeweled glove.

Alas, the fun comes to a pretty abrupt stop just past the three-quarter mark, and “The Favourite” comes tumbling down like a spirited reveler with a bad hangover. Fortunes turn in somewhat surprising ways for our warring cousins, but in storytelling terms, Lanthimos paints himself into a corner. So he opts for a more somber tone that, at least for this fan of the film, leeched what made it a cheeky delight with powerful crossover appeal.

Abigail, for instance, deserved a less overly deterministic fate. Sarah, on the other hand, is given a bittersweet, on-point send-off. As for Queen Anne, the cumulative weight of her choices and poor hands dealt to her take their toll, and Colman, a familiar face to Anglophiles, navigates this tricky material in breathtaking fashion. Her performance, regal and playful and melancholy, sometimes at the same time, is the stuff of award-season gold.

And yet, “The Favourite” is much more effective when it draws irreverent laughs than when it strains for morose gravitas. The film ends in an extended dissolve that's haunting and sobering but will likely leave multiplex audiences scratching their heads. But even though it ends as a downer, the bulk of this ribald yarn is well worth putting on your best finery for. It's not quite the homerun it's advertised to be, but an expertly rendered delight all the same.

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