Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) in 18th Century Britain is portrayed as petty, childish, moody and frail. She is surrounded by simpering flunkeys and obsequious politicians angling for favour at court.
Having lost many children during or after childbirth, the widowed queen is propped up and supported in many and varied ways by her close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz).
The court is vicious and brutal, with everyone seeking an angle to curry favour with the mercurial queen, whose moods change by the minute. Swinging from utter despair to childish delight, whilst her seventeen pet rabbits (one for each dead child) run around her feet, a haunting reminder of her sense of loss.
Lady Sarah as the Queens counsel injects her own views and wishes into state proceedings, when the Queen is “unwell”. Effectively ruling vicariously as the war with France rumbles ever onwards. Of course the needs of the great unwashed poor are not only neglected but barely considered.
Into this heady and dangerous mix arrives “Abigail” (Emma Stone), a character who has fallen far in society, much further than the carriage and mud incident when first introduced.
Slowly negotiating her way through murky palace intrigue, Abigail catches the Queen’s eye and brings her into direct competition with Lady Sarah, a dangerous place to be.
Meanwhile “Harley” (Nicholas Hoult) a politician on the make, adds further complexity as he seeks an insider to understand the inner workings of the Queen’s fevered mind.
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos throws everything but the kitchen sink at the screen and audiences ears. Fish eye lens view, scene fades, discordant music obscuring dialogue, nude politicians being pelted with rotten fruit and so forth.
Not only does this detract from the film on occasion it makes for a difficult watch. Coupled with strong unexpected language, occasional sex scenes belying the R13 rating and very adult themes, this rules out watching with the family on a rainy Sunday.
What does just keep you watching are the performances, which are universally strong despite difficult characters to portray. Colman is the stand out and was rewarded with a best actress Oscar for her troubles, of which there are many for this character.
The tone of the film seems uncertain on occasion, swerving between comedy and pathos without settling on what story it is attempting to tell. As a depiction of a deterioration of mind and body, Colman has that part nailed. Certainly all the main actors are game and each character gets what they deserve, not what they desire as the credits roll.
The story takes historical fact more as inspiration rather than gospel and is unlikely to be an accurate portrayal of royal life at the time. Reality would likely have been much worse, which arguably makes the current incumbents seem positively normal by comparison….
By no means an easy watch and will not appeal to everyone and represents a difficult “recommend”.
Come for the acting and stay for the acting, if you can tolerate the distractions the director has chosen to throw in your path, this may yet prove a worthwhile watch.