Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos | Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara | 119 min
The new film by the Greek director of Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer is, I offer humbly, his best film yet. It’s still got a strangely skewed perspective, but it’s much more character-driven than satire- and concept-driven, bringing a compelling and multi-faceted drama about a power struggle between three women that manages to be both hilarious and affecting.
We’re in the court of Queen Anne (1665-1714, in case you were wondering), who is alternately sickly, self-pitying, and petulant, but still manages to solicit sympathy. That’s partly because of the way the wonderful Olivia Coleman plays her, and partly because she’s deeply traumatized, and (intermittently) appreciates kindness, both to other people and to animals—she keeps rabbits in her rooms.
Her closest friend and confidante is Lady Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who basically runs all political and military affairs for her Queen, and has her own reasons for keeping Anne in check. Then arrives Abigail (Emma Stone, her British accent on point), Sarah’s cousin, who once walked amongst the gentry but lost everything. She sees an opportunity to seize something back for herself, and inveigles her way into Anne’s good graces, upsetting her cousin’s plans and systems.
The film is being marketed as a farce, and those elements are here. Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan favour fisheye lenses and whip pans to create a funhouse environment, where participants live in a bubble of their own blowing. The long tracking shots and suspense-building atonal score also suggests Kubrick circa The Shining, the candle-lighting Barry Lyndon, while the outrageous costumes and decadent period touches—energetic vogueing at dances and throwing fruit at a naked man—channel Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.
But these influences aren’t worn on a sleeve: Lanthimos has proven his singular vision, and even while he’s swallowed some of his dry, satirical sting this time out, he’s replaced it with something much more deeply felt. The thing is, just as the characters are manipulating each other for their own reasons, so too is the audience having to constantly reassess who to root for. From scene to scene you’ll find your allegiances sworn and resworn.
Stone may have the biggest arc, playing Abigail as someone who recognizes that in order to survive, she has to sacrifice moral grounding. It’s not because she means any particular harm, but because in order to be safe in this world, it may be necessary to hurt others. What she doesn’t seem to recognize is the eventual toll on her soul. Sarah is already a smooth operator, and even though she sees the writing on the wall, she could be outflanked.
And at the centre is the Queen. She’s the most tragic figure, but also the emotional hub of all that goes on, the one woman who wields power over men without compromise. She is easily manipulated, but her real enemy is loneliness and grief, and is constantly fighting to keep them at bay.
Even from a surprising talent like Lanthimos, this is astonishingly good stuff. Easily one of the best films of 2018.