(director: Yorgos Lanthimos; screenwriters: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara; cinematographer: Robbie Ryan; editor: Yorgos Lanthimos; cast: Olivia Colman (Queen Anne), Rachel Weisz (Lady Sarah),Nicholas Hoult (Harley), Emma Stone (Abigail), Joe Alwyn (Masham), James Smith (Godolphin), Mark Gatiss (Lord Marlborough); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Lee Magiday, Yorgos Lanthimos; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2018)

Well-executed dark comedy of court intrigue in 18th-century England.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The New Wave absurdist Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”/”The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) connects with the British production company Film4 to direct with confidence this well-executed dark comedy of court intrigue in 18th-century England. The screenplay is written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, and is somewhat based on the true story of Lady Sarah. It comes across as a sort of punchy Masterpiece Theatre presentation by an unconventional director.The elegant indie film about the backstabbing between two cousins, Lady Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), and Abigail (Emma Stone), opens in the 1700s in the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), in an Oscar worthy performance, with the Hatfield House subbing for Kensington Palace. Lady Sarah has been groomed to be the loyal servant and confidante of Queen Anne, who is both an emotional and physical wreck from numerous ailments that leave her constantly depressed. She’s basically out to lunch, putting all her energy into her pet bunny rabbits. This enables Lady Sarah to have sway over her rule, including on the ongoing controversial war with France she supports. She does so to ennoble her warrior husband Marlborough (Mark Gatiss). Cousin Abigail once also was a lady, but her wanton father gambled away his fortune and title. To pay off his debts Abigail was given to a German. When the downtrodden Abigail comes to the castle, she’s assigned by Lady Sarah to be a scullery maid. From that bottom position Abigail plots to rise again to the top by being Lady Sarah’s chief rival for Queen Anne’s attention. She does this with noble charm, showing a sweet front while hiding her calculating heart. The few men who have major roles are all scoundrels. The tall Harley (Nicholas Hault) is a surly fop speaking for the landowners. He enrages Lady Sarah because he wants to cut taxes needed for the war. The other key figure is Masham (Joe Alwyn), a court participant who is a hunk but a dummy. He’s someone the conniving Abigail woos to gain status and when they marry we see it’s not for love but political reasons. The moral of the story seems to be a woman must do what she can to survive in such an unfair world, and if she can smoothly pull it off no one should really mind. The cousins are fierce rivals for the attention of the tragicomic figure of a Queen, who is stuck in a wheel-chair while trying to make herself whole again to rule the country on her own. The film, based on real historical characters and court intrigue, is filled with a biting wit and an indecent humor that is most entertaining.

REVIEWED ON 9/6/2018 GRADE: B    https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/