I enjoyed this movie a lot: visually sumptuous, as you’d expect of a period drama, but completely lacking in the prevailing fascination with (and fawning over) royalty and aristocracy, choosing instead to portray the English upper classes as fruitcakes, fops, ruthless opportunists, or some combination of all three. So we get plenty of big dresses, frock-coats and wigs in ornate stately architectural spaces, but without any sense that any of them deserve any of it; nobility is a fungible asset, the only true currencies are hustle and influence. All the male characters are in supporting roles, for the most part quite literally so: this is a storyworld where women are in charge, and the boys are mostly foils for their cunning and energy. But it’s no sisterly feminist fable, to be sure: Abigail and Lady Marlborough come close to killing one another in their battle for the favouritism of the tragically unhinged (but occasionally muleish and furious) Queen Anne, and the scullery into which Abigail arrives is neatly sketched out as being just as nasty a playground for the sort of power games that could result in injury or disfigurement. There are no good characters at all, nor any really evil ones – though perhaps Abigail comes closest to being the villain of the piece, even as she’s kind of also its hero-protagonist.
I don’t know much about cinema, but even a near-illiterate like myself can notice not only the much-discussed use of wide-angle and fisheye lenses (which provide a queasy-trippy warping of scale and distance that works particularly well with the contrast between the large, high-ceilinged rooms of state and power and the smaller, darker cupboards of function and functionaries), but also the use of character movement through light (both natural and unnatural) and darkness to accentuate mood and emotion. Likewise I know little about the history of the period beyond what reading other reviews has provided, but I know enough to be aware that there’s lots of flagrant and deliberate anachronism going on at the cultural level: points in case would be the moments of very contemporary demotic language in among the courtly cliches (I’m fairly sure that “va-joo-joo” was not a common slang term for vagina in the 16th Century), and the dance scenes, which mash up the formalisms of the time with modern moves from the last sixty years to surreal and amusing effect. The whole thing seems very modern, in fact, distinguishing it from the majority of period drama, which makes a great show of laying claim to a fidelity and authenticity that it has no chance of ever earning. Plus very little of the period drama I’ve seen (which isn’t a great deal, to be fair) manages to pack in so many laughs, most of which are in sympathy with the characters rather than at their expense. Nonetheless, it’s quite tragic, too, with Olivia Coleman’s Anne as the pitiful monster warped by misfortune around whom the others must dance – or not – for the sake of their advancement and security.
What more can I say, but that I felt Rachel Weisz stole the show, got a lot of the best lines, and definitely got all the best outfits? (Some of her get-ups are coded male, and she totally owns them, as she does the role.) Thoroughly recommended – though it’s clearly no universal crowd-pleaser, as the screening I attended lost a handful of presumably disgruntled royalists about a third of the way through. Whether it was the swearing and (explicit, but not graphic) lesbianism that put them off, or the unavoidable implication that monarchy and aristocracy are shabby scams built on deceit and manipulation, I am none the wiser. But put it this way: it’s no Downton Abbey, and thank fuck for that.