📽 If you have not seen this film, drop whatever you are doing and book tickets now. It has been nominated for ten Oscars and if it doesn’t sweep the board, call me Jemima and paint me cerise. It is quite extraordinary: classy, funny, bawdy, violent, heartbreaking – and very very strange.
It took me a minute or two to adjust to the frenetic world of the opening. There is fast cutting, a series of flashbacks, and rather a lot of characters are introduced, seemingly all at once, rather like walking into a crowded party stone cold sober, when it is well under way.
Soon, the sequence of events emerged as I pieced together the flashbacks : a pretty girl in a moving carriage observed that the gentleman opposite was pleasuring himself inside his clothing whilst staring at her. Before you could deal with your outrage and/or amusement, they arrived at a very grand country house – and the pretty girl was pushed out into stinking mud.
Thereafter, the situation begins to clarify. The girl is Abigail Hill [Emma Stone], the cousin of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough [Rachel Weisz], friend of Queen Anne [Olivia Colman] and power behind the throne. After losing seventeen children, riddled with gout, with suppurating sores on her legs, and a ruined digestive system, the Queen has been reduced to a squawking parody of majesty, petulant, contrary, with the mood swings of a toddler. She indulges in racing ducks with her Prime Minister, and later lobsters, declaring excitedly: ‘We can eat them afterwards.’ She keeps seventeen rabbits which are allowed the run of her state bedroom and which she calls her children.
Her friendship with Sarah is all that keeps this wreck of a woman alive – she threatens to jump out of a window at one point – and it is Sarah who saves her. The relationship is a sexual one, something not historically proven, but who cares? Sarah, by her own protestation is the only person who will speak truth to the Queen and in a court full of spies, manipulators, intelligencers and intriguers, this is Sarah’s trump card.
Sarah is unimpressed by her cousin and sends her to the kitchens to work as a scullery maid. Abigail gains the Queen’s attention by preparing a poultice of herbs which brings relief to the lesions on her legs. Gradually, she worms her way into the Queen’s affections and ultimately her bed. Needless to say, this inflames the formidable Duchess with jealousy, leading to an implacable hatred.
I shall say no more about the plot, except that it revolves around the power struggle between these two women for the Queen’s patronage, affection and her bed. This gets very nasty indeed, including lies and whispers and calumny, not to mention poison and blackmail.
Their vicious machinations, often hidden behind smiles and courtly language, seemed to justify Kipling’s assertion that ‘the female of the species/ is more deadlier than the male’.
Indeed, many of the males in the film seem to be ineffectual fops, fannying about in powder, patches and preposterous (though authentic) wigs. They either do the Duchess’s bidding as urged by the Queen or are politically paralysed by her dithering. The most dandified of the popinjays is Lord Harley [Nicholas Hoult] who is the Tory master of court intrigue and who tries to engage Abigail as a double agent. Samuel Masham [Joe Alwyn] is another matter. When Abigail snatches off his wig and rubs off his make-up, he is revealed as an exceedingly handsome, potential rugby forward. In fact, one of the funniest scenes in the film involves a fight between the two of them in the forest where both parties try to rugby tackle each other into submission.
Emma Stone is pretty, clever, cunning, lewd and unscrupulous as Abigail. You will feel sorry for her one minute and appalled the next. You wouldn’t want to be close to her. Rachel Weisz’s Duchess is dashingly butch in masculine attire and beautifully dominant in a dress. The superficially polite dialogue between these two crackles with barely suppressed odium in the wonderful scenes on the shooting rage.
A word about the language. The screenplay is tight and brisk, sometimes courtly, sometimes modern, often wonderfully ribald and certainly not for those of a ‘holy, cold and still disposition.’ It will make your toes curl and it will make you laugh. It must be remembered too that ‘colourful’ language is not uncommon in the literature of the early Eighteenth Century.
In The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope addresses the Queen:
O thou, Great Anna, whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take, and sometimes tea.
How are the mighty fallen! Colman’s Anne stomps about her palace, raging and whimpering, savaged by pain and desolated by loneliness, a sorry travesty of monarchy. This performance is beyond praise. Colman is not afraid of close-ups portraying her as ageing, wrinkled and double-chinned, with silly make-up, or washed-out without it, in agony, in sudden infantile delight, even in the ecstasy of an orgasm. It is a consummate performance, leaving you reeling between distaste and a profound pity for a ruined life.
The costumes are exquisite and perfectly in period and the palace is almost a character in itself. For all its opulence it is a prison. The Queen is wheeled up and down the long gallery, or hobbles backwards and forwards on her crutches, condemned to a claustrophobic existence.
The night scenes have a rich Rubens palette, offering candlelit refuges of privacy in the enveloping darkness.
I liked the flunkies dotted everywhere like periwigged punctuation marks. There is nowhere in the palace, apart from her bedchamber, that she can go without being observed although they must pretend to see nothing. They are nominally there to be at the Queen’s behest should she need them but can expect to be screeched at or right royally twatted should they deign to offer assistance unbidden.
Very, very strange
If this makes the film seem dark and gloomy, it is not: it is often hilariously funny, fast-moving and rumbustious, full of surprises, and visually sumptuous. But it is very, very strange.
Its strangeness lies in the direction by Yorgos Lanthimos. I often thought that what we had here was an homage to Peter Greenaway. It is divided into numbered chapters like The Draughtsman’s Contract and its use of wide-angled and fish-eyed lenses conjures up a surreal expanding and contracting world. Here is the Queen of three realms and a growing empire reduced to a bitter little space, constantly observed and always distorted. And the ducks, and rabbits, and lobsters, and a maddened Queen could not help but conjure up the topsy-topsy-turveydom of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
In final montage, Abigail is on the floor. obeying the standing Queen’s command to ‘rub my legs’ (a recurring euphemism). It reflects their positions in the hierarchy, but as their faces blend and separate against a kaleidoscopic background of rabbits lolloping in soft focus, we see, for both of them, the loss and emptiness at the heart of things.
Go and book now.