Greetings again from the darkness. Our biggest fear was that Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos would one day soften the twisted edge he blessed us with in THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017), THE LOBSTER (2015), and DOGTOOTH (2009). That day may yet arrive, but not today and not with his latest. It’s his first time to direct a screenplay he didn’t write, which likely explains this being his most accessible film – though labeling it “mainstream” would be a huge stretch. So brace yourself for an unusual and odd costume period piece unlike anything you’ve seen before.
Co-writers Deborah Davis (her first screenplay) and Tony McNamara (TV background) deliver biting dialogue and treacherous situations, and benefit from three staggeringly terrific lead actress performances. Olivia Colman stars as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Churchill, and Emma Stone is Abigail. The three combine for one of the strangest and most convoluted love triangles and power struggles in history.
It’s very early 18th century and Britain is at war with France. Queen Anne is frail and in ill health due to severe gout and who knows how many other ailments. Her erratic behavior and quick temper convey childlike behavior from an adult body with a crown. Lady Sarah (Winston’s great-great grandmother, if I’ve calculated correctly) has strategically become the Queen’s trusted political advisor and often governs in her stead, while also sharing moments of intimacy. Sarah pulls no punches and certainly doesn’t subscribe to the ‘kill ‘em with kindness’ approach, and instead frequently insults the Queen to her face. When Sarah’s cousin Abigail appears after her family’s fall from grace (her father lost her in a card game), Sarah takes pity on her due to Sarah’s fondness of Abigail’s father during her childhood.
Abigail’s naivety and kindness soon win over the Queen’s affections. Is her sweetness an act? Is it due to ambition or desperation … is there even a difference here? We soon learn Abigail treats conniving as a profession – she views it as her only path back to respectability, and she’s willing to take on many acts lacking in respectability to charm her way into the inner sanctum. We are plopped into the wicked fun, delicious cat-fighting, strategic backstabbing and crafty political and personal maneuverings … right up until the story turns to vicious bleak darkness in the final act.
It’s fascinating to watch three women hold the power during this era, as the noblemen are relegated to constantly playing catch-up (kind of like the real world) and struggling to figure out the rules of the game. Power struggles abound, as do director Lanthimos stylistic touches. Noblemen played by Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn are frequently dressed in frilly costumes, giant wigs and heavy make-up – quite the contrast to what we typically see in these period pieces. Other Lanthimos touches include royal duck races, pet bunnies representing deceased children, and fisheye lenses used from every conceivable angle.
Ms. Colman and Ms. Weisz were both in THE LOBSTER, and both have a knack for the Lanthimos style, and Ms. Stone surprisingly is also a natural with the twisted, vicious material. Each of the actresses have an extended close-up allowing them to show-off their immense and subtle talent … Ms. Colman’s is especially impactful. Extreme profanity (numerous c-words and f-words) is at times startling and effective, and the music is unique and diverse – as we would expect. As an added bonus, it requires little imagination to connect the dots to our contemporary political state, although that approach would likely stifle one’s enjoyment of the film. Mr. Lanthimos has quickly reached the ‘must-see’ list of directors, with a guarantee that we are going to see something unusual and interesting. It’s one of the year’s best, even if it’s not for everyone.