Behind the seemingly innocuous title, The Favourite (three and a half stars out of four) lurks a wicked, wily historical satire that ranks as one of the season’s distinct pleasures. This dramatization of the machinations and manipulations of power in the highest echelon of the British Monarchy is certainly no staid period piece. It’s hot and heavy with sexual tension, rife with rumor and scandal – and directed in smashing fashion by Yorgo Lanthimos, for whom this is something of a change of pace.

Set in the early 18th century, England is ruled by Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), who can immediately be discerned as being very far from reality, both by her ailments – whether real or imagined – and the pomp and circumstance surrounding her, which effectively distances her from what is actually taking place in her kingdom. She’s the Queen, everyone is at her service, and that’s that. If she changes her mind, so be it. Yesterday’s friends become today’s enemies, today’s enemies become tomorrow’s allies.

While England’s coffers are being depleted by a costly war with France, Anne spends most of her time prostate in bed or frolicking with her pet rabbits. She’s not fiddling while Rome burns but is close enough to cause concern within her inner circle, and at this point in time, her closest confidante and de-facto top adviser is the domineering Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz).

Into this royal realm comes Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), Lady Sarah’s estranged cousin, whose good name and position fell prey to her father’s failings. Now a lowly servant girl, she is relegated to basic household chores. But it soon becomes clear that Abigail is not without ambition, and has designs to usurp Lady Sarah’s hold on the Queen. No fool herself, Lady Sarah realizes this and engages in a rapidly escalating battle of wits to claim the Queen’s ear – and more.

In a sense, The Favourite is a comedy of manners, if not errors. The principal characters indulge throughout in unladylike behavior, to say nothing of the unladylike language. Yet that’s all part of the unexpected fun to be found in this extremely well-acted and potent portrayal of power and the lengths with which people will go to attain it, even if unaware or unprepared for the consequences. There’s a bit of a morality play here, its message not diluted by its deliciously salacious tone. It could be said that these characters get exactly what’s coming to them, and although the film is occasionally long-winded, it never loses its grasp.

A particularly nice and interesting touch is that under these circumstances, the power on and behind the Throne is exclusively female. The male characters in the film are fools or fops – and often both.  Nicholas Hoult, as the ambitious politico Robert Harley, appears to be having the time of his life prancing and preening through the proceedings, clad in Sandy Powell’s eye-popping costumes with delivering his dialogue with uproariously fey conviction.

In addition to its trenchant screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, which is rooted in actual fact (although surely not as entertaining as depicted here), The Favourite is a feast for the eyes given its atmospheric cinematography (courtesy Robbie Ryan) and exquisite production design (Fiona Crombie). Academy members will surely take note.

Indeed, they will also likely take note of its tremendous trio of leading ladies. The studio (Fox Searchlight) is promoting Colman as Lead Actress and Stone and Weisz as Supporting Actress. It’s the same sort of thinking that saw Nicole Kidman nominated (and win) the Best Actress Oscar for The Hours (2002), while Julianne Moore (who had a larger role) nominated as Best Supporting Actress for the same film. However it shakes out, all three actresses have roles of comparable size – and all three are in top form. Take one out of the equation, and The Favourite wouldn’t be what it is.

The Favourite opens Friday.

See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2018, Mark Burger.

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