Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
Ireland/United Kingdom/USA, 2018. Element Pictures, Scarlet Films, Film4, Waypoint Entertainment. Screenplay by Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara. Cinematography by Robbie Ryan. Produced by Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Yorgos Lanthimos, Lee Magiday. Music by William Lyons, Johnnie Burn. Production Design by Fiona Crombie. Costume Design by Sandy Powell. Film Editing by Yorgos Mavropsaridis. Golden Globe Awards 2018. Venice Film Festival 2018.
In the early eighteenth-century court of “mad” Queen Anne (a magnificent Olivia Colman), nobles and politicians must suffer her distracted and curt manner while believing her close friendship with Lady Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (played with with razor-sharp relish by Rachel Weisz) is actually behind her decisions. Lady Sarah is indeed confidante, advisor, lover and upbraiding nanny to this ailing queen who shoves cakes into her mouth and vomits them up almost simultaneously, suffering the pain of her gouty legs and having very little interest in the war with France that Weisz is secretly overseeing. Enter Emma Stone, giving her best performance yet, as Abigail, cousin to Weisz, formerly of a titled background but now fallen in fortune to little more than a scullery maid, entering the Queen’s palace as a maid after having established contact with her suspicious relative. Conning her way into the queen’s bedchambers with a potent salve for her leg pains, then finding favour by entering her bed and pushing Weisz out, Stone is soon rising back up in the world, winning the Queen’s affection, gaining a profitable husband and thwarting Weisz’s plans to raise taxes to pay for the battles in France. It seems as if the interloper is deserving of her success, as the Queen is improving in her own sense of self-worth and independence under the care of this new protégé, dictating her own informed decisions about policy and not simply giving into Lady Sarah’s Machiavellian control, but is Abigail’s triumph actually going to bring her satisfaction? Lady Sarah is undone quite cruelly by Stone, including a fascinating sequence involving her being abandoned in a brothel, but Weisz’s ironic smile and the fact that sneaky upstart Yorgos Lanthimos is behind the camera means that we know that we’re in store for a Careful What You Wish For tale, a period All About Eve with touches of Fielding grotesquerie (including the funniest cinematic hand-job seen in decades); all the witty tongue-lashings and dangerous plot maneuvers reminiscent of Mankiewicz’s film are combined with much bolder sapphism (an, it should be noted, a pretty kick-ass dance number) for a ruthlessly funny and hilariously amoral comedy. Lanthimos directs his first film not from a script he has written, and while it has none of the deep criticism of social institutions that he explored in Dogtooth (overbearing families) or The Lobster (obnoxious societal coupling), it’s a more than diverting game he is playing before getting back to his more serious business. The lead performances sink their teeth deeply into their roles, with Colman the most fascinating as a woman whose physical disappointments have placed her well past the point of caring deeply about her responsibilities and is, at this point, merely a collection of bratty corporeal needs.