By now, it should be possible to assemble an overlapping history of the kings and queens of England from, say, David Hemmings as Alfred the Great – if not Paul Scofield as Lear – to Helen Mirren in The Queen. Of course, the highlights are the big, significant stories about monarchs whose names got attached to eras – Cate Blanchett and Bette Davis as Elizabeth I, Emily Blunt and Judi Dench as Victoria – or those where the Royal story intertwines with wider political social history – Becket, The Lion in Winter, Chimes at Midnight, Henry V, Richard III, The Private Life of Henry VIII, Lady Jane, Cromwell, The Madness of King George, W, The King’s Speech. Given this patchwork infilling, it was probably inevitable someone would make a film about Queen Anne – last seen on screen played by Peter Bull in the dire pirate movie Yellowbeard – who must rank as one of the country’s least notable rulers, and about whom readers of 1066 and all That would be hard-pressed to remember anything.
It’s possible that writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara expected this long-in-development project to emerge as a slightly edgier but still conventional example of heritage cinema – posh frocks, stately locations – but the inspired directorial casting of Yorgos Lanthimos has taken the whole thing off down a stranger garden path. Taking an anecdote about the fairly useless, unhappy queen’s closeness with Lady Sarah Churchill, wife of the military leader the Duke of Marlborough, the film plays out as a cover version of All About Eve done in the style of Barry Lyndon – but with an additional earthiness that sometimes verges on the anachronistic but has a crude, Swiftian vigour (Swift gets a namecheck) that’s funny and often squirm-inducing. Anne (Olivia Colman), who has replaced her many dead children with pet rabbit, relies on Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) for advice, solace, sex, cossetting and fashion tips – she’s the only woman at court who dares point out that a particular style of make-up makes the Queen look like a badger. However, Abigail (Emma Stone) – a poor relation of Lady Sarah’s – arrives, covered in shit after being pushed out of a carriage, to take a gig as a lowly maid, and assiduously rises to replace her cousin in the Queen’s favour.
A war with France, conducted by the Duke (Mark Gatiss), rumbles on in the background and whigs and tories argue over it, with each backing a rival favourite – and little credit accruing to scheming bewigged politicians Godolphin (James Smith) and Harley (Nicholas Hoult) as the battle plays out. Lanthimos still has his penchant for Kubrickian long shots and long takes, with a fisheye framing, and these historical figures come across as grosser versions of the cast of Gormenghast – Abigail is very Steerpike-ish – as they stride along corridors swearing under their breath or discuss atrocities in an ostentatiously matter-of-fact manner. Stone, who has to work hard to keep up with Colman and Weisz (both enjoying themselves hugely), makes a virtue of her industry, especially when delivering a couple of the most joyless hand jobs in cinema history. Colman, of course, is splendid – stuffing herself with cake until she pukes, strapped into a cyborg-like all-body brace so she can walk on her gouty legs, dejected and pettish at the country getting on without her, and winkling out the nuggets of tragedy in the life of yet another crowned monster arsehole.