One of these days, I’m going to write one of these that’s not about the Stuart dynasty in some way.
Queen Anne reigned briefly at the beginning of the 18th century, and spent most of her reign at war with France over who got to sit on the throne of Spain (that Hapsburg penchant for cousin marriage caught up with them). She is not well-remembered. Fat, sad, gouty, and childless, she seemed largely at the mercy of court favorites, especially the Churchills (yes, Sir Winston’s ancestors, the 1st Duke of Marlborough and his wife). Her 17(!) pregnancies resulted in 4 live babies, none of whom made it past the age of 11. When she died, the very Glorious Revolution that put her sister and then her on the throne decreed that a Hanoverian clod named George should occupy it instead of the surviving members of her family. In short, in an unlucky dynasty, she was perhaps the unluckiest, almost certainly the saddest. Even her grandfather’s grandmother Mary, in her proud, defiant exile, never approached that level of melancholy.
Now, historians will quibble over how true that really was, and point out counter-narrative facts, like how Anne presided over Cabinet meetings far more regularly than her predecessors or successors. But this is the movies, and the movies will print the legend. So Queen Anne becomes a cipher controlled by other women.
And more than controlled. Because this is a 21st century film, we must treat 18th century gossip-rag rumor (the Gawker of its day) as Gospel truth, and believe that Her Majesty was giving away more than her trust to her favorite women. We will leave utterly unexplored the relationship between her and her husband, Prince George of Denmark, the father of those 17 pregnancies, nor give any credence to the widely-reported rumor that she loved him deeply and was heartbroken at the loss of him. That kind of film won’t give us a chance to see Emma Stone naked.
That being grumbled, did I like the damn thing? Yes. It aspires to a kind of Barry Lyndon feel, and it gets there. Rachel Weisz, as Sara Churchill, is at least as much fun as Glenn Close in Dangerous Liasons. Actually, more so, because Sara Churchill has a depth to her that the Marquise de Merteuil does not have. Churchill doesn’t play the game just to be Queen of the Mountain, she actually cares about the politics. She favors the vigorous prosecution of the war with France, even at the risk of her husband, the great general Marlborough. She labors against France just as her descendant Sir Winston would labor against Germany, and for the same reason. Louis XIV was no Hitler, but he was the head of the strongest state in Europe with a habit of bullying smaller states and seeking to make himself the arbiter of Western Civilization. The War of the Spanish Succession was in this respect as epoch-defining as the Napoleonic wars were a century later. And the film focuses on this, brings it right front and center. The script gives Weisz a chance to elevate Sara Churchill from mere schemer to stateswoman.
By contrast, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) has no interest other than not going back to the scullery. Which, who could blame her, but the cynical disinterest in policy, the refusal to even countenance that her actions will have consequences, is not driven home until the last scene, when it becomes clear what she has bought herself. The ending is dour to the point of being anticlimactic.
But that’s what happens when you try to do history, which gives us very few third-act turnarounds. In real life, the Churchills were disgraced, the war party-Whigs sent packing, and peace with France was negotiated. The Churchills lost, and Anne died a few years later. That was how it was, and the film finds a poignant if irretrievably current way to express that. Peace to all of them, and to the shades of them we conjure up on film, just for good measure.