(15, 119 mins)

Starring: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, Mark Gatiss

COURTLY intrigue pits two ambitious women against each other for the affections of an emotionally brittle queen in director Yorgos Lanthimos’s rollicking comedy of deliciously cruel intentions.

The Favourite is a brilliantly bawdy and boisterous battle of the rouged sexes, which tosses out profanities with devastating precision.

Words cut to the bone and an expertly polished script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara draws copious blood with its volleys of rapid-fire barbs.

“As it turns out, I am capable of much unpleasantness,” warns one viper in the queen’s nest.

“If you do not go, I will start kicking you ... and I will not stop,” retaliates her waspish opponent with a Machiavellian twinkle in the eye.

Performances from the predominantly British cast are an embarrassment of riches that should be recognised with multiple nominations at the Academy Awards in February.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone savour every bile-drenched syllable of their feuding harpies but it is Olivia Colman who shines brightest as a petulant and volatile ruler stalked by tragedy, who is devoted like a spoilt child to her 17 pet rabbits.

The Norwich-born actress confidently walks a tightrope between wild eccentricity and despair including one unforgettable scene in the midst of the raucous rivalry when her moody monarch reveals the heartbreak of losing multiple children.

Lanthimos shoots the devastation in natural light or by flickering candles, alternating between disconcerting angles and traditional chocolate box framing to keep us on our proverbial toes alongside his much-abused characters.

Queen Anne (Colman) is removed from the machinations of government, allowing her secret lover Sarah Churchill (Weisz) to effectively control 18th-century Britain.

While Sarah has the monarch’s ear, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) challenges her authority from his seat of power in Westminster, doing everything he can to protect state taxes, which are financing the war effort against France.

At the height of this battle of wits, Sarah’s lowly cousin Abigail Hill (Stone) arrives unceremoniously at court and is casually employed as a scullery maid.

Abigail recognises that the key to bettering her positioning lies in winning the queen’s favour and she assiduously charms and beguiles Anne.

Once Sarah discovers her cousin’s underhand plot, she retaliates in venomous kind.

Abigail’s clueless suitor Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) is collateral damage as worthy adversaries trade bruising verbal blows behind tapestry-covered doors.

Bookmarked into eight deeply satisfying chapters, The Favourite delights and unnerves, accompanied by a soundtrack that boldly melds classical music with a contemporary electronic score.

With its immaculate period detail, gorgeous cinematography, sparkling performances and flawless direction, Lanthimos’s dark and twisted tragicomedy is a strong contender for the best film of a year that has barely begun.

God save the querulous queen and her corrupt court of diabolical, scheming admirers