TajLV’s review published on Letterboxd:
"I like when she puts her tongue in me." ~ Queen Anne
Historically speaking, this film from director Yorgos Lanthimos takes some liberties, but it is most certainly based upon the early 18th century reign of Queen Anne and her court. After seeing it, I just had to do some research to find out how closely it resembles the action that took place at Kensington Palace in 1708-1711, shortly after the death of Anne's husband, Prince George of Denmark.
Yes, ever since they were children, Anne (Olivia Colman) had been close friends with Sarah Jennings (Rachel Weisz), who later married the future Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill (Mark Gatiss). Yes, Lord Marlborough was a long-time confederate of the Whig Prime Minister Godolphin (James Smith), who was opposed by the Tory statesman Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult). And yes, the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) was a major sticking point between the two political parties.
Yes, Lady Sarah had been Keeper of the Privy Purse, among other titles, since Anne's ascension in 1702 and was a powerful, strong-willed influence on all the Queen's decisions. And yes, they had pet names for each other, Mrs. Morley and Mrs. Freeman, with a lesbian relationship long suspected. Also true that, although Anne leaned toward the Tories who wanted peace with France, Sarah was firmly behind her husband and the Whigs in continuance of the war.
Now the fiction begins. History confirms that Sarah had a cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who joined the Queen's Household, but it was in 1704, not 1708, and at the invitation of Lady Sarah herself. In fact, the duchess had employed Abigail in her own household at St. Albans since learning she'd fallen on hard times. The cousin had been forced into servitude under Sir John Rivers of Kent, not exactly sold into slavery by her father. Nor, as the film would have us believe, was her arrival at Kensington completely a surprise to anyone. But that's literary license, of course.
It's also unlikely that Abigail was anywhere near as catty, conniving and calculated as shown here in her rise to Lady of the Bedchamber of Queen Anne. But it is true that she privately married Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), "and that the queen had been present at the marriage." Her intimacy with Anne is also a matter of record, as well as its nature being kept from Sarah. And Abigail definitely sided with Harley, who, although we are not told so in the film, was related to her by blood. His mother Abigail Stephens was a niece of her grandmother.
We do know that "the duchess of Marlborough was dismissed from her appointment at court, and Lady Masham took her place as Keeper of the Privy Purse in 1711." However, the scenes of poisoning, Lady Sarah's disappearance, and the claim of financial malfeasance all appear to be inventions devised to add excitement to the plot, which again is fair game for cinema that does not pretend to be a documentary
Where the film excels:
Television star Colman gives us a masterclass in acting here, portraying Anne as the sad, childless monarch who substitutes rabbits for the 17 children she bore who failed the thrive. Her only joy now is cunnilingus performed by Sarah, and later Abigail. Of course, Weisz and Stone are excellent in their parts, too, but it's incredible how easily Her Majesty outshines her subordinates in scene after scene, even as she's being manipulated by them. All the male roles are far less developed, although Lanthimos's depiction of them at court and in Parliament is rather astounding. An example is the Lords at play: racing ducks around overturned furniture or tossing blood oranges at a giggling naked man in a wig. And their disdain for being ruled by women is clearly evident at every turn.
Where the film misses the mark:
I felt the pacing was off and the presentation dragged in places. Then, there's that damn soundtrack! It was driving me crazy with the loud repetition of two notes that seemed to last for an eternity. Arrgh! Also, there's the maddening use of typography for the credits and chapter titles with deliberately inartistic kerning to the point of illegibility. Arrgh! And I question the use of makeup, too. I know styles change, but the clown-like face painting, both male and female, is simply grotesque. Was it really ever like that? Or was this just a filmmaking device to distance us from the characters and the period?
The film's five Golden Globe nominations, including Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy, have made it one of the most talked about entries in the race for the Oscars, where it is certain to gain a few mentions. The performances of Colman, Stone and Weisz are certainly Academy Award level, and the screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony MaNamara is worthy of note. However, in my book the film just isn't the masterwork some reviewers are claiming it to be. Although I enjoyed it, I can't give it full marks.