Not your typical period piece. Though, truth be told, nothing that director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) puts his hands to can be classified in any way typical. While this is certainly not what you might have expected when you bought a ticket to see a tale of Britain’s Queen Anne, it can be argued that this is the Greek director’s most accessible film. Accessible in that it involves universal themes like jealousy, love, ambition, and cruelty. All the drama is heightened as it takes place in a palace amongst aristrocrats and royalty. A story begging for you to sink your teeth into it.
Cruelty seems to be a subject which preoccupies Lanthimos. Several of his films deal with it. He seems to want to look at it from all possible angles.
Early in the 18th century during the latter part of Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman – Murder on the Orient Express – 2017, The Iron Lady) reign. At this point she is a generally unhappy woman with no children or husband and suffers from awful bouts of gout. Pain and loneliness make up most of her life. With her only relief seemingly being her 17 rabbits and friend/advisor, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz – Disobedience, The Mummy). Life is going along as smoothly as can be expected as the Queen just allows Sarah to make all the decisions like whether they will remain at war with France or not then everything changes with the arrival of Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone – The Help, Battle of the Sexes).
Abigail and her family have fallen on hard times, so she arrives at the palace looking for any kind of job Sarah can offer her. Quickly she makes her way from the kitchen to being Sarah’s lady in waiting. After seeing something surprising happening between Sarah and the Queen one evening, Abigail decides that her ascension should not stop there. A game of who is the Queen’s favourite breaks out between Sarah and Abigail. It is a to the death battle with the winner ending up the most powerful woman in the country.
Amazingly with all the attention paid to British rulers, not much is known from Queen Anne, who ruled from 1702 until 1714. She was the last king/queen from the House of Stuart to ascend to the throne. Most of what we know about her was written about her by her less than complimentary friend Lady Sarah. While this is in no way a lesson in history it does give the viewer some insight into her life.
The world here is one that has to be seen to be believed. We always hear or read about how debaucherous, insane or degenerate British royalty was, but here it is the entire court which is astonishing. Politicians racing ducks around. Chasing women around in courtship to physically subdue them seems to be the norm. Bunnies hop around the Queen’s bedroom.
Visually this is an arresting film. The director has made lots of effort to make it so by using plenty of wide angle shots or shooting his three actresses from below. All with the aim to add to the wild environment we are watching. Wild and almost claustrophobic in atmosphere.
Hollywood has long avoided putting the flawed woman up on screen. Sure there has been witches, prostitutes and the like, but rarely has there been films which dealt with women who were prickly. Lanthimos tries to right that wrong in one film. All the women here are equal parts likable and destestable. Each motivated by their most base emotional needs.
Plenty of praise and nominations has been heaped upon the shoulders of the three actresss – Stone, Weisz and Colman. They are all excellent here. Not just because they all have to act while wearing corsets and those expansive costumes, but due to the breadth, layers and humanity the imbue their characters with. Emma Stone has built a career upon being able to do almost anything it seems from drama to comedy to musicals. She adds another notch in her already impressive belt by doing this period piece. On top of that she has to do it all with a British accent. Olivia Colman is largely unkown on this side of the Atlantic. A well known quantity in her home country due to her work on television series Broadchurch, The Night Manager and Watership Down, she has not done much work that many have seen here. This is her announcement, before she takes on the mantle from Claire Foye in portraying Queen Elizabeth II, to North America that she is one of the best character actresses working today. In her nimble hands, Queen Anne is equal parts a horror and a vulnerable woman. Already acknowledged Brit, Rachel Weisz piles on another award worthy performance onto her CV.