Yorgos Lanthimos has been responsible for some of the oddest films of recent years, Dogtooth, Alps, The Lobster, and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer have all been curious pieces which shift tone and play with unusual ideas, some more successfully than others but Alps was the only one I didn’t personally get on with. Now he’s back with with his mainstream work yet, though given it’s a comedy set in the court of Queen Anne in the 18th Century I can’t imagine it’ll beat Avatar to become the most successful film of all time.
That’s quite the shame too because it’s ridiculously better than James Cameron’s rather bland sci-fi flick and deserves to be seen by a large audience. It feels like a mixture of Peter Greenaway and Dangerous Liaisons, yet it’s uniquely a Lanthimos film as it’s shot with verve and makes the stately locations look majestic yet also lived in and very real. Unlike his previous films the dialogue is purposefully natural as well, mixing high wit with the lowest language of the gutter with aplomb.
Based on real life events, though possibly spiced up a little, in 18th Century England Queen Anne has a favourite in Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who cares for her, acts as her political adviser (and influencer) and is the only person who can bluntly tell her if she is unwise. Scandalously she is also Anne’s lover, though no one is aware of this, at least until Sarah’s distant cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) joins the Royal household and in her quietly ambitious way soon becomes Sarah’s maid and witnesses the two making love. After this event it’s not long before she is attempting to take Sarah’s place, and seduce her way in to power.
It’s one of those films where all of the cast are perfect, turning in career bests in certain situations. Olivia Colman superbly plays Anne as a neurotic, slightly insecure, childish and spoilt Queen, yet she’s still sympathetic as she’s haunted by the tragic loss of seventeen children and her sense of humour also appeals, if Colman’s not nominated for an Oscar this year it’ll be an outrage. Though that does also apply to all three of the leads, Rachel Weisz has never been better as she toys with those in power and yet shows a softer side as she cares for the Queen, and Emma Stone is also on stupendous form as the devious usurper.
There’s a real joy to watching Stone and Weisz play with the men who try to control them, as well as verbally spar with each other as they attempt to either stay in or win the Queen’s favour. The only downside is that one of these masterful manipulators must inevitably fail, but that adds a much needed dramatic element to proceedings and makes it a far more fascinating film. It has a strong feminist concept as nearly all of the men are shown to be weak willed or ineffectual, but Nicholas Hoult especially rises to the challenge of matching the incredibly strong performances from the main female cast, and as with Weisz and Stone it’s the best he’s ever been.
It’s a period drama but it’s not filmed like one, so if you’re not a fan of the genre don’t let that put you off it, these characters fascinate as we discover their inner lives. Lanthimos has created a beautifully made film which is expertly paced, enchanting to view and the performances are some of the most memorable of the past decade. It’s no surprise that this has featured so highly in critic’s best of the year lists and if I had been able to see it in 2018 it would have topped mine as well.