Scathing And Funny;
Sharp, Striking Visual Style;
Three Amazing Leads.
One thing that often holds back period pieces like this from being more commercially viable is a lack of connection to modern times. It’s not that nobody wants to see a look back into those types of living museums, but relatability is something humans will always crave in storytelling. Timing is everything, and with the rise of prominent female figures in entertainment and life, the #MeToo movement and anything else of the sort, now is the perfect time for this film to come out. It portrays a fictionalized account of a real story that changed millions of lives based on power plays, deceit and sex, but with three women involved in a triangle that has seemingly always featured mostly men. It is a film that seems perfectly applicable to our modern times despite being grounded in the very early 1700s. And while it doesn’t shy away from wartime drama regarding tax hikes, internal power struggles and battle strategy, the film never loses its wild sense of entertainment. A large part of that is how believable everything seems to the viewer. I have no idea if rich people, either then or now, engage in duck racing, rabbit collecting, or throwing fruit at their fat, naked, clown-painted peers, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t seem just weird enough to be a perfect representation of the type of high society behavior that exposes just how out of touch those with power and money are from the rest of us.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos has steadily risen in the ranks as he churns out more films, each of which seems to be as outlandish as it is good. As interesting as his last few films have been, the dialogue, always strikingly his own, has given Lanthimos’s scripts a quality that often makes my head cock slightly sideways like a confused dog. I don’t mean that to sound like a major complaint, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is tracking to be his best and most viable film yet and he didn’t write the script. It is still drenched in dry humor and discernible speech patterns, but being able to focus on directing really pushes this film into great territory. Lanthimos exercises complete control over his camera, with precise movements amidst lush set design, offering a multitude of slow-zooms, effortless tracking shots and fisheye lenses that put a definite stamp on the movie. He appears to dominate every single detail of the screen and they all serve a purpose, even the still figures (servants, soldiers, maids and hands, etc) who decorate the backgrounds as our characters breeze past them with their every intention – be them good or evil – on full display. In this respect, it can seem every bit as brash as modern politics, where lovers and their secrets can change a country’s course overnight and personal jealousy can impact matters of state in dramatic ways.
The three women who make up this triangle of love and power each absolutely kill it in their respective roles and deserve all the award recognition they are sure to receive. Olivia Colman as Queen Anne is fragile and layered, and far from as useless as she appears at initial glance. She can be quietly ferocious when she needs to, but isn’t afraid to introduce traces of silly nuance that make her scenes madly enjoyable. As her confidant (and someone who uses her to her own gain), Rachel Weisz is superb as Sarah Churchill, as smug as she is exacting, and somehow as icy as she is warm. If she seems easy to peg at first, there are scenes late in the film that will turn that notion on its head, and Weisz is captivating to watch as she runs the course of her arc. As Abigail Hill, the one who upsets the apple cart and changes everything, Emma Stone truly shines. She is inherently likable and it translates perfectly into her character, luring you in and building trust in her, which is her goal from the minute she asks Sarah (her cousin, by the way) for work. As she positions herself closer and closer to the Queen and things begin to heat up, seeing these three woman play with and off of each other is just exquisite at times, wicked and engaging and never as stuffy and stifling as these period pieces can occasionally seem.
There is a wealth of subtext in this film that makes it as relevant now as it ever could be. The way women seem to inherently fear and distrust each other, even (or maybe especially) at their closest points, is fascinating. They are just as flawed and vicious as men, but it’s not something we are used to seeing on the big screen, let alone from three major female leads all playing the game at once. I can’t no for sure, obviously, but I would think that the fears hidden between the lines mirror those that women face every day, trying to secure and retain their spot, wherever it may be, protecting it by any means necessary and embracing parts of yourself that others may not realize lurks out of sight. And the fact that powerful men of the time seemed to try so hard to dress and look like women speaks volumes without saying a word.
The score, a mix of classical pieces from past and present composers, is used to great effect, not only emphasizing the time frame but often greatly underscoring the drama and adding heaps of tension to the scenery. The ominous notes seem to hit louder to drive the point home to the audience that something menacing is coming, and you wonder if the characters would benefit from being able to hear those notes for themselves. As opposed to having one voice tailor the music for the entire movie, the filmmakers instead choose the perfect piece for each scene and it really helps the soundscape radiate.
This is a film that I thought I would enjoy based on the trailer and those involved, but given how peculiar I found my previous two Lanthimos experiences (The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer). I didn’t expect I would like this one quite as much as I did. It has the tools to deliver in a big way and succeeds, giving us a memorable, highly rewatchable film with a bite more than equal to its bark.