How would you fancy being the favourite to royalty? Being their advisor and bestowed special treatment from the monarch? Ok it probably doesn’t mean that much now, but back when the monarchy ruled the country and made the decisions this would have been a prime spot! Highly sort after and a cut throat game to get there.
Yorgos Lanthimos has directed another amazingly dark comedy which has been written by Deborah Davies and Tony Mcnamara. While this has a very different feel to his previous films “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” as this is a period drama, it is filled with his trade make eccentricities, which has made this film a joy to watch as well as something disturbing and claustrophobic.
This film is very new out, so if you don’t want spoilers, come back to me when you have watched it. If you don’t mind spoilers… read on.
It is 1708 and Britain is at war with France. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is on the throne, accompanied by her companion the Duchess of Marlborough – Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). The Queen appears childlike, and fraught with illness, taking very little heed to what is happening politically, choosing to take part in eccentric activities such as duck racing or playing with her 17 rabbits (each one representing a child that she lost). Sarah is disdainful of the rabbits and refuses to let them out of the cages or acknowledge them despite the fact that she tells the Queen that she loves her.
Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin has made her way to the palace, wanting to gain employment in, but on her journey there falls from a carriage landing in mud, and when the maids show her where she can clean up, before seeking the audience of the Queen, she is led directly to the Queen’s chamber, to be met with Sarah, to looks at her like something she has scraped from her shoe commenting on the smell. After a little toing and froing, Abigail is given a job in the kitchens with the women that led her to the chamber covered in mud. Getting her to clean the floor, but not telling here there is lye in the water she receives a chemical burn on her hand.
On being summoned to take items to the Queen’s room to assist with the issue of gout, Abigail sees an opportunity to gain favour and watches as her cousin talks to the Queen soothing her. The next morning she goes out to pick herbs to heal her hand, but also make an ointment that will help to ease the gout in the Queen’s legs. While she is out she is spied by a man.
Abigail is caught putting the ointment on the queens legs and Sarah sends her to be whipped, but as the Queen comments on the soothing nature of the ointment during a bedside meeting, Sarah saves Abigail from the beating. During a discussion it comes about that Abigail has fallen from grace due to her father’s gambling habits, where he lost her to a german man in a card game. Sarah makes Abigail her personal maid, and gives Abigail a further chance to ingratiate herself to the Queen.
Harley (Robert Hoult) (a tory member of parliament and landowner who argues against the land tax) soon approaches Abigail, hoping to use her as a spy in order to find out what Sarah’s schemes are and figure out a way to circumvent her authority. Abigail initially rebuffs him, but soon she becomes aware of the secret lesbian relationship between Anne and Sarah. As she is fascinated by the Queen’s scandalous homosexual inclination, Abigail begins to court the Queen’s favour herself. In true Lanthimos style the sexual relationship between Anne and Sarah is stilted and almost business like in its approach.
With Sarah focused on the war effort, Abigail kindles a friendship with Anne, which soon becomes sexual, once again stilted and slightly uncomfortable, but heavily contrived by Abigail in a knowing that this is a way to get her place as favourite with the Queen. Sarah becomes aware of Abigail’s machinations and attempts to have her sent away. Abigail drugs Sarah’s tea, causing her to fall from her horse and be dragged into the forest. She vanishes for several days. Anne, thinking that Sarah has temporarily abandoned her to make her jealous, takes Abigail into her favour, where her first reward is to be allowed to accept a proposal of marriage from Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), a baron in Anne’s court, and the man who originally spied Abigail in the forest. The marriage reinstates Abigail’s noble standing as a baroness. Their wedding night is scuppered by Abigail’s obsession with Sarah and where she is, leaving Masham to receive a sad handjob as his conjugal right – another feather in the stilted sexual relationships of the Lanthimos bow.
A battered and scarred Sarah awakens in a brothel. When she returns to court, she issues an ultimatum to Anne: send Abigail away, or she will disclose her correspondence with Anne that details their sexual relationship. The threat destroys the relationship between Anne and Sarah. Although Sarah voluntarily burns the letters in regret, she is stripped of her offices and sent away from court.
Anne’s health deteriorates further, and she struggles to understand papers and documents put in front of her, clearly suffering from the ongoing effects of a stroke, she is more concerned about whether he has received a letter of apology from Sarah than anything else.
When Abigail, now promoted to Keeper of the Privy Purse, presents what she claims to be evidence that Sarah has been embezzling money, Sarah and her husband (Mark Gatiss) are exiled from Britain.
Soon after Abigail’s victory, her ego and gluttonous appetite for luxury start to inflate in the same way Sarah’s had. She has wild and extravagant parties where she gets drunk, cuckolding her husband and ignoring the Queen’s needs.
One day while lounging in the Queen’s chamber, Abigail deliberately treads on one of Anne’s rabbits making it squeal underfoot waking the Queen from slumber. As the Queen tries to stand she falls, making Abigail run to her aid and the rabbit is released. As she tried to help Anne up from the floor, Abigail is screamed at by the Queen, showing a new found destain from Anne. Anne unsteadily gets to her feet, saying she needs her legs massaged. Abigail complies, and Anne states that she is dizzy, grabbing Abigail’s hair and using her as something to stabilise herself on. It that moment you realise that Sarah has won as she has been freed from being the favourite and Abigail is left to be nothing more than like one of the Queen’s rabbits, trapped under her foot and there for nothing more than entertainment.
This film is quite different from Lanthimos’s previous films with a more extravagant feel to the sets and more elaborate craziness (well who doesn’t need a naked man in a wig that gets oranges thrown at him in a film), but it still has the same underpinning themes that he highlights so well. The norm not being so normal, society’s expectations are nothing like the reality and his ongoing oddness with sexual relationships.
What I really loved about this film, was that it did keep to some historical relevance. Anne and Sarah were friends, they did have a close relationship which did sour after the death of Anne’s husband, and Sarah took revenge by writing slanderous things about the Queen in her journals. These journals where used by historians to piece together what Anne was like for many years, until she was reassessed in the late 20th century. What comes through in this feel is that the story ultimately feels (although you don’t realise it until the end of the film) that the view of the Queen is from Sarah’s perspective all the way through. Anne is shown as childish, unconfident, not very intelligent… all the things that would have been in Sarah’s memoirs.
Anne did also have at least 17 children who all died either during pregnancy, stillborn or very early into their lives. She was obese, and suffered gout through the extravagant food and drink she partook in and she was plagued with ill health from her 30’s until her death.
For me this film is brilliant – it uses clever symbolism (I particularly like the character of Godolphin carrying the duck – literally a duck out of water – showing his cuckolding in the political arena), and the humour is so dark it verges on uncomfortable at times.
One word of warning… if you are easily offending by the C word – you know the word I mean… yes that one, this film, is not afraid of using it, so be warned you will hear course language throughout… personally I think it suits the character and the film.
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