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The Favourite

Three women fight for power and position in this fascinating dramedy
© Fox Searchlight Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone and Olivia Colman battle for power in 18th-century England.
      In the early 18th century, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) doesn’t want to be bothered with financing a war or running her country. Suffering from gout and fear of being unloved, she prefers to stay in her chambers, shouting at servants and playing with her 17 rabbits — one for each child she’s lost. 
      Anne’s best friend is more than happy to run the country for her. Fiercely loyal to the concepts of the monarchy and England’s supremacy over France, Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) pushes the queen to raise taxes in order to continue an unpopular war. In all the court, she alone is immune to Anne’s wrath, daring to openly criticize the queen and do as she pleases. Sarah usually gets her way, but she has enemies.
      The arrival in court of fallen noblewoman Abigail (Emma Stone) gives Sarah a pawn to help shore up her power. But Abigail’s quest to regain her status might supersede Sarah’s desire for control. Who will win when three women go to war over emotional and physical power?
      In this incisive take on aristocracy, everyone must be concerned about perception and looking for the weaknesses in others. No one — even Anne, the literal embodiment of the nation — cares as much about the country as for maintaining popularity and power.
      A movie about betrayal, pride and the hells we create for ourselves, The Favourite is a twistedly funny historical drama. Director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) scales back his surrealism for a style that’s more accessible but just as bitingly observant. There are no real heroes and villains in this tale, just flawed people allowing the worst in themselves to govern their behavior. No one escapes punishment in a Lanthimos film; they merely postpone it.
      The trick in making a movie where all parties are ultimately unlikeable is casting. Brilliantly, Lanthimos’ trio of actresses play both conniving shrews and petulant children, all while outclassing the men trying to play the same game. As Queen Anne, Coleman is an insecure, peevish despot made even more emotionally volatile by ill health. Stone’s Abigail is the perfect servant for such a ruler, as her need to advance in society makes her obsequious to every demand.
       As Sarah, Weisz is a perfect balance of ruthless force and unyielding decisiveness. The interplay between Anne and Sarah speaks of a lifetime of friendship — and of manipulation. Resolved that what she’s doing is right, Sarah won’t yield to anyone. 
        Each woman wages her own private war, but the battles between them are even more interesting. Don’t expect sexy catfights; these melees are vicious in another way. Lanthimos gives our grey matter a bit of a workout and keeps us guessing as to who will win. 
Great Dramedy • R • 119 mins.
~~~ New this Week ~~~
Ben Is Back
        The day before Christmas, Holly (Julia Roberts) finds her oldest son Ben (Lucas Hedges) waiting for her. Supposed to be in rehab, Ben convinces Holly that his sponsor encouraged a home visit for the holidays.
      When things go awry, Holly soldiers on. Seemingly insensible to the feelings of the rest of her family, she is determined to prove she’s a good mother and that there’s nothing wrong with her son. That may not be true. 
      Relying upon histrionics and massive leaps in logic rather than good storytelling, this feels like a Lifetime movie made with a whopping budget. It has an issue it would like to tell you about — the opioid crisis — but ham-fisted writing and performances mean you won’t want to listen.
Poor Drama • R • 103 mins. 
Mary Queen of Scots
      Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) reclaims her crown as the queen of Scotland upon the death of her husband, the king of France. She is beautiful, charming, brave — and a threat to Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), ruler of England and Scotland. Indeed, Mary eventually lays claim to the English throne, throwing both countries into war.
     This historical epic about two women competing for power should be a stirring drama. A film casting two excellent actresses in rich roles is rare; I’m hoping we’ll see Ronan and Robbie go after each other.
Prospects: Flickering • R • 112 mins. 
Swimming with Men
      Eric (Rob Brydon) feels lost in corporate drudgery. His relationships are failing at work and at home. When he finds a local men’s synchronized swimming club, he rediscovers joy. As the team gains a bit of fame, Eric and fellow swimmers must decide whether to go further with their unmanly hobby.
      A quirky British movie about men doing something traditionally considered for women only promises to be The Full Monty for synchronized swimmers.
Prospects: Flickering • NR • 96 mins. 
Vox Lux
       Celeste (Natalie Portman) survives a school shooting to become an overnight celebrity when she sings at her classmates’ memorial. Soon, she is a pop star, prey to all the pitfalls of that life. After a scandal almost ruins her, she seeks a comeback with a new, futuristic album. 
      A surrealist cautionary tale, this promises drama, interesting images and brash performances. Portman is especially refreshing, playing against type here as a mouthy woman focused on having it all.
Prospects: Bright • R • 112 mins.