Off with their heads!
(2018) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, James Smith, Mark Gatiss, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, Carolyn Saint-Pé, Edward Aczel, John Locke, William Dalby, Anthony Dougall, Emma Delves, Faye Daveney, Jennifer White, LillyRose Stevens, Denise Mack, Everal Walsh, James Melville, Wilson Radjou-Pujalte, Liam Fleming, Jenny Rainsford. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Power often trickles down from the top, particularly in monarchies. Back when kings and queens ruled nearly everywhere, it was preferable to be close to the reigning monarch in order to wield enormous power. Often the King or Queen’s right hand funneled the information to the ruler with a decidedly slanted point of view and their influence often dictated policy. In some ways, it’s no different today.
In the era of Queen Anne (Colman) of England, that spot at her right hand was occupied by Sarah Churchill (Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough. With a war with France raging, Sarah had aligned herself with Minister of Finance Lord Godolphin (Smith) of the Tories who urged higher taxes to pay for the war, which not coincidentally was being waged by the Duke of Marlborough (Gatiss), Sarah’s husband. Opposing this is the Whigs led by Lord Richard Harley (Hoult) who mainly represented rural concerns who felt the greater brunt of the taxes as well as supplying the bulk of soldiers for the front.
While Kensington Palace where the Queen resided was blissfully insulated from the rest of England, into this atmosphere comes Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Stone) who was once a noblewoman who was eventually sold by her wastrel father to pay off gambling debts. Penniless, she hoped to find work in the Palace courtesy of her cousin.
A flare-up of the Queen’s painful and debilitating gout gives Abigail her opportunity to move up the ladder. Smart and resourceful, the new scullery maid knows how to make a concoction that can bring relief to the Queen’s condition. Grateful, Anne brings Abigail into her inner circle, much to Sarah’s consternation. The two cousins are well-aware of the other’s ambitious nature and as the two collide in a battle for the Queen’s affections, both women will stop at nothing to get what they want; Abigail to acquire power and Sarah to retain it.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos has already put together an impressive filmography which includes Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of Sacred Deer – and yes there are lobsters herein, briefly. This is easily his most accessible film to date but that doesn’t make this mainstream. Lanthimos has a habit of making his audience view things in a slightly oddball way, be it through a script that’s oddball or in this particular case, through unusual camera angles and lenses – period pieces as this one is generally tend to use fairly straightforward angles and standard lenses. Here we get Anne gong down a long corridor through a fish-eye lens, causing it to look like she’s rounding a turn or a scene of Abigail sitting against a wall with lush tapestries sitting so still you’d swear she was part of the tableaux.
The main attraction here are the stellar performances of the female leads, all of whom were nominated for Golden Globes with Colman nearly a shoo-in to get a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Both Weisz and Stone have Academy Awards already and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Colman will join them in that exclusive club. Her Anne is strident, a little bit mad, horribly lonely, and oddly vulnerable. She is a figure to be feared but also a figure to be pitied.
Both Abigail and Sarah are conniving, ruthless and devious. Stone and Weisz play them as very similar women but who have different ways of going about things. Sarah is one of the few who can tell the Queen the truth; Abigail is more of a flatterer but appeals to the Queen’s softer side. Both women also use the bedroom to help cement their relationships with the Queen – one of the more questionable facts of the movie which is loosely based on actual events – some historians have complained a bit too loosely but that’s par for the course.
The production design is magnificent and we get a real sense of living in the early 18th century in the mansions and palaces of the court. The costumes are also likely to get an Oscar nomination; the Whigs are foppishly dressed in elaborate powdered wigs and a slathering of make-up, whereas the Tories tend towards more 17th century dress with wigs of natural color and less flamboyant clothes (and no make-up). The look of the movie is as lush as any you’ll see this year.
While the comedy is ultimately fairly black, there is a melancholy that starts to spread into the film late in the second half that is intriguing. Sadly, Lanthimos allows the movie to go on a bit too long, leading to a surreptitious checking of watches by the audience. Some of the intrigue could have been cut back to make the movie a little more zippy.
This is one of the most critically praised movies of the year and anyone who loves the Oscars will need to keep this on their list of must-sees as it is likely to have a fair amount of nominations. A Best Picture nomination isn’t out of the question either, although I found it not quite as entertaining as I would have liked personally. I also found the pacing a little wonky in places and some of the humor too dry for my taste.
There are a few anachronisms, not all of them obvious, but for the most part this is a strong Oscar contender that has three terrific performances, a nice dichotomy of tones and a gilded atmosphere that will delight the eye. As I said, essential viewing for Oscar watchers but perhaps when all is said and done, just short of being an essential film.
REASONS TO GO: The performances by the three leading ladies are all Oscar-worthy and all portraying strong women in their own way. The period is captured nicely with terrific production design and costuming.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit overpraised.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of sexual content, graphic nudity and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time Colman has played a British monarch; she will also portray Queen Elizabeth II in the upcoming third season of The Crown, succeeding Claire Foy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Madness of King George
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Quake