Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenplay: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Cast: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone
119 mins, Ireland/ UK/ USA 2018
Watched by Sarah, Ismay, Jos
What a pleasure to watch this dynamic, colourful, stylish, noisy, tragicomic film about three remarkable women, played with élan by Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone; set in the court of Queen Anne, it is a psychological rather than a costume drama, but with utterly splendid costumes nonetheless.
Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) has relied on the friendship and love of Sarah, Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) ever since she was a girl. Smart Lady Sarah makes sure that the interests of her husband and his political party enjoy Queen Anne’s support, until her position is threatened by the arrival at the palace of Abigail (Emma Stone), who was once a lady herself but is now reduced to a servant. But it does not take Abigail long to creep into the bed and the affections of the ailing queen, and to raise herself to the status of lady once again.
The dynamics of power between the three women are played out in scenes of brilliant comedy: Sarah and Abigail in elegant costumes engaged in bird-shooting competitions, or the two of them vying for the Queen’s attention over a gloriously decadent-looking mud-bath, and many more.
All three women are shown as complex and contradictory: selfish, ruthless and cruel, but also affectionate, needy and vulnerable.
Against a background of scheming men in powdered wigs, Sarah and Abigail are fighting not just for power but for their very survival. Beneath the high-spirited theatrical comedy (the director uses the fish-eye lens to wonderful effect), we see a world in which life was nasty, brutish and short. Especially for women. The most powerful person in the land has lost seventeen children, through miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death; there is real pathos in the love she lavishes on the seventeen rabbits – each one named for a dead child – she keeps in her bedroom.
Who triumphs in the end, Lady Sarah or Lady Abigail? It’s hard to say, really. Perhaps the final victory goes to Queen Anne, for having Olivia Colman – all these years later – play her in a performance that is moving and magnificent.