Review: The Favourite (15), 119 minutes, Vue York, City Screen, York and Everyman York ****

COME the turn of the year, the Oscar contenders start lining up on the grid, itchy to make their indelible mark just in time for the awards season.

Out last week, Disney’s doppelganger Mary Poppins Returns could be on the list after Golden Globe nominations; pitching for the crown from January 18, Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen Of Scots might be too. Definitely there will be the aptly named The Favourite, this week’s twist of history wrapped in a romantic tragicomic drama that finds Olvia Colman installed as an early favourite to bring home the Best Actress prize.

Pulling the strings of a largely British cast, swashbuckling Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos deserves to be nominated too, delivering on the left-field delights and weird wonders of 2015’s The Lobster and 2017’s The Killing Of A Sacred Deer with this bawdy, barbed-witted, bravura battle of courtly love and hate.

Colman’s brittle, bruised, monstrous Queen Anne (who reigned from 1702 to 1714) suffers from gout; bulimia, badger-eyed make-up malfunctions, mood swings; the grief of 17 failed pregnancies by her husband, Prince George of Denmark; and the mendacities and machinations of her government ministers and the opposition, a corrupt male world determined to exclude her from the minutiae of decision-making.

Moody, capricious, eccentric, volatile, self loathing, consumed by despair and equally fond of cakes and the 17 pet rabbits that have replaced each lost child, she seeks sapphic solace with secret lover Sarah Churchill, Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz).

Such intimacy gives Sarah a greater hold over the Queen than the politicos, although Nicholas Hoult’s spectacularly poodle-wigged Opposition leader Robert Harley is a sharp, waspish spanner in the works in the vexatious matters of taxation and the war against the French.

Men are distracted by duck racing, chasing women in the Benny Hill mode and lobbing oranges at their naked fellow man. Queen Anne, meanwhile, is distracted by the beguiling attentions of Sarah’s calculating cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone, perfect English accent et al), who sets out to win the Queen’s favouritism from the seemingly unpromising position of scullery maid, but whose underhand, under-the-covers tactics start reaping rewards.

So the clashing cousins’ fierce feud sparks and flares in dark corridors and palace rooms, depicted over eight chapters that recall the dark wit and whiplash of Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract from 1984, albeit with the unnerving boisterousness of League Of Gentlemen’s comic carnage.

Not only Colman’s lead performance is terrific, so too are those of the warring Weisz and Stone in Lanthimos’s feminist storm. His constantly inventive direction is matched by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s deliciously cruel script and superb use of lighting and a discordant electronic soundtrack. Can Mary Queen Of Scots match it? Roll on January 18.

Charles Hutchinson