Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) brings us a historical fiction about a rivalry for the ages.
It’s the early 1700s and Queen Anne’s War (or, in Europe, the War of Spanish Succession) has been going for nearly a decade. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is not in good health and most of the ruling decisions are made by her friend and secret lover Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). While Sarah favors taxing the landowners to continue the war, the head of the Tories, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), opposes taxation and seeks to convince the Queen to end the war.
Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin, arrives to seek employment, her father having squandered her family’s wealth (and having lost Abigail previously in a card game to a German). Abigail becomes a maid, but after she puts some healing herbs on the Queen’s gout-ridden leg, she is promoted to Lady-in-Waiting. Abigail soon discovers that Sarah and the Queen have sex, but does not tell Harley, even after he threatens her to be his spy.
Abigail and Sarah develop a friendship, but as Abigail becomes closer to the Queen, it becomes a rivalry. Abigail first talks to the Queen about her rabbits, which she discovers represent each of Anne’s 17 unsuccessful pregnancies, something Sarah clearly never cared to ask about. Eventually, Abigail uses her position to sleep with the Queen, which Sarah finds out immediately and dismisses her. However, Queen Anne hires her back. With Sarah now actively trying to curry back the Queen’s favour to get rid of Abigail, Abigail poisons Sarah’s tea, resulting in her being dragged for days on a horse and nearly forced into sex slavery. While she’s gone, Abigail convinces the Queen to allow her to marry Baron Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), regaining her title and wealth. When Sarah returns, she threatens the Queen to either send Abigail away or have their sexual relationship revealed. Sarah eventually destroys the evidence of their relationship, but this has ended her friendship with the Queen. Sarah is sent away and then framed for theft by Abigail, resulting in her exile from Britain.
At the end of the film, Abigail has now become cruel and egotistical, and the Queen dislikes her because of how she forced Sarah out. After going one step too far and hurting one of the Queen’s rabbits, the Queen forces Abigail to rub her legs like a common servant.
The general story behind this movie isn’t exactly original (whether in fiction or history). It’s the powerful being corrupted and overthrown by the downtrodden… only for the downtrodden to now become the powerful and corrupted. When we see Sarah in the film, she mostly takes Queen Anne for granted and talking to her like a child, despite the fact that Anne, being, you know, QUEEN is actually much more powerful. She also antagonizes almost everyone, from the Tories to Abigail (who she pretends to shoot as a threat when Abigail learns her secret love life). The only advantage she really has is that she’s the Queen’s only lover and confidant. She also risks her husband’s (Mark Gatiss) life, seemingly with only a moderate amount of concern, by continuing a war that he is fighting. Despite that, she is trying to do what she thinks is best for the country, not necessarily just herself.
When we first see Abigail, she is ostensibly fairly honorable, but has dealt with a lot of hardship because of her father, including having to be the sex slave of a German man to honor her father’s wager. She’s basically a classic tragic figure. While she sees the merit in gaining the Queen’s favor, she does also seem to be genuinely interested in helping her and being friendly towards her and Sarah. However, as the movie progresses, we see her scheme more and more and with less and less concern for the morality of her actions. She even says at one point that her honor won’t be much comfort if she’s forced to become a prostitute to survive. Eventually, she stops caring about anyone besides herself, becoming even more antagonizing to everyone than Sarah was.
Anne is the most sympathetic character, because she’s constantly in a position that she doesn’t want, is in physical pain, is dealing with a number of traumas, and her closest friends are constantly taking vengeance upon each other. However, she also is someone who could have prevented many of the issues in the movie had she just been more assertive. That’s part of why it’s satisfying in the end to see her take control over Abigail and diminish her feeling of invincibility.
Neither Sarah nor Abigail ever chooses to end the cycle of escalating attacks between them, even though either one could end it. Abigail even points this out to Sarah after she becomes a Baroness again, but neither can stand the other one having the last strike at them. Sarah does finally try to stop, choosing to burn the letters between her and the Queen for Anne’s sake, but by this time it’s too late, and Abigail realizes that she has to remove Sarah forever to ensure her power, which cements her as truly corrupted.
The costuming and sets in the movie are excellent, as expected for a period piece like this. They’re not exactly accurate (I’m told), but the outfits do a good job of conveying how the characters are trying to present themselves in a scene, particularly the more masculine shooting outfits that Sarah adopts to try and show dominance over Abigail.
The cinematography is interesting, with a lot of the film using wide-angle fisheye lenses. From a practical standpoint, this shot shows the entirety of a room, something that shows off the setting rather than just the character, but from a narrative standpoint it tends to isolate the characters, showing how they are trapped within the rooms because of their choices. It’s definitely the easiest Yorgos Lanthimos film to watch, but it will still throw some people off.
The performances are all amazing, and I think Olivia Colman’s performance as a stroke-ravaged Anne is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. Given how much of the communication between characters relies on what is being intended rather than what is being said, anything less from the actors might have wrecked the film.
Overall, it’s a great movie and practically screams “Oscar Bait.” I don’t know that it’ll win, but it’s definitely worth seeing and Olivia Colman is the only person who might take the Oscar from Glenn Close this year.
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