Runtime 119 Minutes
This is the kind of Hollywood movie that I loathe. While it uses real names and purports to be a factual tale of history, it has the same relationship with history as Donald Duck has.
The story it purports to tell is the relationships among three women, England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) in the first decade of the 18th century.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos from an original script by Deborah Davis significantly rewritten by Tony McNamara, the film is presented in eight parts as sort of a light comedy with bright music, despite the dark Machiavellian theme.
The true story is that Anne and Sarah were friends long before Anne became Queen. Upon her coronation in 1702 she named Sarah Mistress of the Robes (the highest office in the royal court that could be held by a woman), Groom of the Stole, Keeper of the Privy Purse and Ranger of Windsor Great Park. In other words, Sarah became the power behind the throne.
Sarah was a plainspoken woman and a good business woman, and she remained so in her relationship with the Queen. Sarah’s husband, John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss) was away during much of this time fighting the War of the Spanish Succession. Politically, Sarah was a Whig and exerted as much influence as she could on Anne, who was more aligned with the Tories, to fund her husband’s war.
Abigail came on the scene in the early 1700s after she had been hired by Sarah, who took pity on her after Abigail’s family lost power and fortune and she was working as a servant. Sarah hired her even though she had never met her because she had innumerable cousins and could not have been expected to know all of them. In 1704 Abigail procured an appointment in the Queen’s household.
Because Sarah was an aggressive, frank and sometimes undiplomatic woman and Abigail was her direct opposite, quiet and retiring, and because Sarah was away from court much of the time, Abigail slowly insinuated herself and became a favorite of the Queen and eventually Sarah was dismissed. Jealous, Sarah did everything she could to regain favor with the Queen, even spreading rumors of a lesbian relationship between Abigail and Anne.
Those are the facts, but not the movie. Lanthimos freely admits that there is little correlation between the movie and the facts. He has been quoted as saying, “Anyone who comes to this movie looking for a history lesson is in the wrong movie.” To her everlasting discredit, Deborah Davis signed on to the fictionalization of her original script and the result is this distasteful movie that should offend anybody who cares about the truth.
It takes up the Sarah-created rumors of the lesbian relationship between the Queen and Abigail, turns that rumor into fact and makes homosexuality the linchpin of the story. But it goes even further by showing that not only was that a fact in frank and unpleasantly descriptive language many could find offensive, but also shows a lesbian relationship between Sarah and the Queen, something that has no foundation.
Not only is the film historically inaccurate, it’s sloppy. Among lots of other gaffes, it assumes that the viewer knows who these people are and never once reveals when the action takes place.
If for some unknown reason Lanthimos really wanted to make this film, he should have made it more like a roman à clef using different names instead of defaming everyone in it. Since he did not, he had an obligation to have introduced the film with a graphic saying that although real names are used, the film is almost totally fiction. Absent this, he has perpetrated a fraud on the public. The sad part of this is that the vast majority of people who have never heard of Queen Anne, Sarah and Abigail will come out of it thinking that this is what really happened.
It might have been nice, also, had Lanthimos included a graphic at the end stating that when Sarah died she had an estate of over £4 million and that her descendants include Winston Churchill and Princess Diana. She deserves better than this.
Tony Medley is an MPAA-accredited film critic. See more reviews at TonyMedley.com.