"Favour is a breeze that shifts direction all the time," warns scheming snot Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer (Nicholas Hoult), early in Yorgos Lanthimos' delightfully scabrous period comedy, The Favourite. He's right about that: In the early-18th-century court of Britain's Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), that shifting breeze regularly reaches gale-force intensity.
And it's not simply the Queen's favor—er, favour—that proves so mercurial. As the film progresses, our sympathies get brutally buffeted about among its three major players: the weak-willed Anne; her sublimely vicious adviser Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz); and the ambitious, wiser-than-she-lets-on servant Abigail (Emma Stone). Weisz and Stone constantly plot and counter-plot against each other as Colman's Anne dithers and waffles and screams at whatever unlucky attendant should happen to enter her field of vision.
At first, Colman makes Anne a downright hateful figure. Having spent her reign infantilized by those around her, she barks willfully childish demands from her bedchamber, throws tantrums, hurls herself into salty spirals of self-pity and too-willingly shunts the affairs of state onto Weisz's Sarah. But Colman's just too damn good to leave it at that; Anne's initial repellent awfulness soon softens into something more pitiable, even empathetic, while her mewling self-pity hardens into a kind of resigned self-awareness—often over the course of a single scene. It's a remarkable performance, at once hilarious and achingly sad.
As Sarah, Rachel Weisz gazes out at the world from behind a fixed, steely, calculating expression, her mouth pressed into a thin reptilian smile that should be registered as a lethal weapon. As she trades waspishly witty barbs with Stone (the screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara teems with quotable insults, both veiled and very, very not), what begins as a hairline fracture in her cocksure veneer soon spiders into a crackle finish; she's worried about her station. She has every right to be.