HISTORY records the reign of Anne, daughter of the last Stuart king James II, as a tumult of political, military, social and cultural achievements relatively unmarred by misfortunes or disasters. The present Royal family acceded to the throne after her death.
For his seventh feature film, Greek-born director Yanthos Lanthimos has cast three top women to enact competing roles in the royal household during Anne’s reign. Deborah Davis makes her screenwriting debut with a witty, sardonically-comic, historical drama about that competition.
You don’t need to have done well in history at school to grasp the background underlying the screenplay. After 17 pregnancies, overweight and needing a wheelchair to get around, Anne (Olivia Colman) has become a pawn manipulated by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, whose husband is away fighting the War of the Spanish succession. Sarah (Rachel Weisz) has, in effect, become the de facto ruler and conduit to the Parliament. Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at the palace and applies for a job after her family has fallen on hard times. There’s more to her than initially meets the eye!
Abigail may be lower on the palace pecking order than either the Queen or the Duchess, but she is going to rise to the top of the film. In reality, she was Baroness Masham, but the film doesn’t attach much weight to this, showing her working at low-level household tasks. But not for long. Abigail is one tough bird with strong ambition reinforced with pretty cool political smarts. Her finding of favour with Anne sets in motion conflict with Sarah that’s unforgiving on both sides.
The film offers a strong suggestion that Anne, and first Sarah, then later Abigail, were lovers. The impetus for this arises from a bawdy poem by an unconfirmed author in the opposition party suggesting the affair was between Anne and Abigail only.
The staging of the story is handsome, elegant and credible. The supporting roles are performed by a mixture of elegant men as politicians and noblemen, with older women performing downstairs functions in the royal household. No punches are pulled about indelicate matters. The humour has a tangy flavour. The vocabulary is not shy about either of those two words that editors of family papers view with displeasure.
And without doubt, the three principal roles are performed with style, grace, energy and gusto by three very skilled actresses who are each a pleasure to watch.
At Palace Electric, Dendy and Capitol 6