“I do fear confusion and accidents.” – Lady Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
It’s early 18th century England, at war with the French, and the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman, at her Oscar-winning perfect), a sweet, yet unhinged, and seemingly accidental monarch, overcome with gout and hormonal fits, while the kingdom is run by her lover, the seductively impish, and glamorously demanding Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz, foxy, soulful). Everything in her soft steely grasp, especially Anne’s petulant heart.
Lanthimos kicks off the lush, bonkers proceedings, accompanied by a harpsichord, in a low angle fish-eye perspective on this chessboard world, making us the toddlers we are, peering into this amusing, grotesque power play of wimpy men in wigs and nutty women with guns dancing elaborate jigs and backstabbing each other.
This somewhat delicate balance is inevitably disturbed by the entrance of an ingenue, called Abigail (Emma Stone, fresh faced and feral), down on her luck, apparently a distant cousin of Lady Malborough – a scheming young contender, straight from All About Eve, whose gambling father traded her in for a standing bet at age of fifteen to a portly old German. That would make one jaded about the world from the very start, if anything would. And Abigail is – more than jaded – she’s seething with red hot ambition of changing her circumstances, with no real strategy except extreme self-preservation.
An otherwise imperious Sarah takes kindly to her when Abigail proves helpful in soothing Anne’s ills, then very quickly deeply regrets it, because as soon as Abi figures out how one renders Queen Anne pleased, she makes a B line for it – ejecting the crafty Sarah from the Queen’s fickle graces, both by lustful wiles, and political machinations. Naturally, this goes down badly with Sarah, and after a stand-off or two, with Anne relishing the love drama from the sidelines, this high-pitched entertaining triangulation escalates in Abi resorting to murder.
Failing that, exile had to do.
However, it turns out Sarah and Anne really loved each other. And, hence, the tragedy.
This fight to keep an authoritarian heart in the palm of one’s hand, the interchangeability of said authority, the irony of true love lurking underneath the strangest arrangements, the ineffectiveness of longing in overcoming hubris, the way love cannot be conjured by trickery or lust, just how much loyalty is essential to love – all of it in the mix – makes this double chocolate & cream cherry cake of a film, served on the finest cinematic lace, chock full of arsenic.
That kind of poison that kills slowly, steadily, while the lovelorn mind plunges down the rabbit hole.