If the movie had not been a satire of a period but had been simply an absurdist comedy on its own, my evaluation might have been different. However, though there is quite a bit of theft from history, the grotesque historical misrepresentation, not for exaggerated effect, but simply to prove that artists can be bigger and better liars than politicians, I find more than off-putting. In this time of great political stress, it is both bad art and irresponsible.
Do not get me wrong. I love black comedy, but I want satire to speak truth to power not add even falser representation to the hyperbole, lies and hypocrisy of those who hold power. First let me offer some historical background. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your angle of vision, in my PhD thesis on historical explanation, one of my case studies was the explanation for the success of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when William of Orange and his wife Mary, Queen Anne’s older sister, captured the throne of England. The beginnings of real parliamentary democracy gained a foothold in the British Isles.
Ill with gout and bed sores, relatively uninformed about world affairs, Queen Anne, who inherited the throne in 1702 while bemoaning 16 miscarriages and infant deaths and one son who lived until the age of eleven, was understandably also disinterested in politics and left much of the ruling of state to others. Contrast Queen Anne with another Queen Anne, Anne Boleyn of Henry VIII’s rule in the mid-sixteenth century and mother of Queen Elizabeth I. That Anne set in motion the English Reformation. Queen Anne at the first of the eighteenth century fortunately died in 1714 at the age of 49 before she could possibly set back the consolidation of the reforms introduced in 1688. Both Annes helped advance the Protestant Reformation, Anne Boleyn consciously and deliberately and Queen Anne more instinctively.
In the movie, Anne is presented as both stupid and a lesbian, thereby accepting and using only one half of the thesis, the latter one, of Anne Somerset (Queen Anne: The Politics and Passion) that the queen was both a lesbian and a woman of great intelligence, discernment, political acuity and resolved to retain and maintain her formal authority. (See also Helen Edmundson’s play, Queen Anne.) Though Lady Sarah in her memoir made aspersions to Anne’s lesbianism and her affair with Abigail, the evidence is weak. Further, in contrast with the portrayal in the movie, Anne was not a stumbler and bumbler, but did engage in affairs of state to a degree, yet could not compete in that realm with Lady Sarah Churchill. Further, she was gouty and fat, but the deft political touch with some of her ministers is entirely missing in the film.
Though both women were hot tempered, Anne Boleyn was much more akin to Lady Sarah Churchill in her cool and detached understanding held together with wit and charm. Both knew how to use power and both were acerbic observers of the political scene. While Queen Anne was power-challenged in a way that mirrored her painful and horrifying experience of her inability to have a healthy child, Sarah seemed to truly love her, a feeling inadequately, if at all, portrayed in the film. Further, Anne did have her own political successes. Though she did succeed in blocking the final disposition of the corrupt and incompetent French monarchy so that the English and subsequent British rivalry with France would last at least another century and could be said to be the deep cause of Britain’s loss of its American colonies, for without the support of France, the American revolutionaries would surely have lost. On the other hand, in the short term, Queen Anne did back the party of peace.
Whereas Anne Boleyn was loved in court but hated by the masses, Queen Anne was widely looked down upon in court and pitied by the masses. While Ann Boleyn had been well-educated, Queen Anne was ill-informed. While Anne Boleyn was a graceful dancer, Queen Anne was a clumsy oaf. While Anne Boleyn received her education in a lascivious and corrupt French court and learned to survive with flirtatious aggression, Queen Anne bled profusely with neediness in the face of a parliament struggling to find its feet. Whereas Anne Boleyn was charming, Queen Anne was often repulsive.
It was Lady Sarah Churchill upon whom she relied to handle matters of state. For Sarah, like Queen Anne’s predecessor, Anne Boleyn, sought to align herself with the Whigs as Boleyn had allied with Thomas Cromwell. Lady Churchill, like Anne Boleyn, became the most powerful person, and not just female persona, in each one’s respective court. While Anne Boleyn was beheaded only a few years after she became queen, Lady Churchill lived to 84 years of age, and, was always backed by her loyal husband of forty years, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough.
Lady Churchill began her political career and advance towards power by both befriending Anne after her Catholic father, King James, had been deposed and sent into exile in 1688, an invasion triggered in part by the birth of a Catholic son to King James, James Francis Edward. Given James II‘s paranoia, the Earl of Marlborough, who was previously a supporter of James, switched sides. The weak and incompetent James II tried to arrest both his daughter, Princess Anne, and Sarah, Lady Churchill, and place them under house arrest, but both easily escaped to a Protestant stronghold in Nottingham.
The cowardly James II, without the support of King Louis in France (the reasons for the loss of his support can be found in my PhD thesis and some of my very early writings), fled the field without a fight and went into exile in France. Sarah solidified her relationship with Anne, the soon-to-be queen, by convincing parliament to grant her an allowance of £50,000 a year so she would no longer have to be dependent on the largesse of William. When William of Orange died in 1702, after only four years on the throne, Sarah became the right hand to Anne when she was installed as queen. Queen Anne reciprocated Sarah’s early loyalty be getting parliament to give her husband an annual parliamentary stipend of £5,000 as well as £2,000 from the privy purse. She made Sarah Mistress of the Robes, but I never caught that reference either in the film, which seemed to stress her informal influence rather than her actual formal positions. She was also Keeper of the Privy Purse.
In the movie, only the surface political relations are depicted; the economic ties are largely ignored and replaced by alleged but historically weakly supported sexual scenes which have little foundation in historiography. More significantly, the excursions into lascivious sex serve as substitutes for a failure to explore the characters with any depth or provide them with either a consistent psychology to explain their actions or events which account for the development of their respective personalities. Instead, both Sarah and Abigail are portrayed as if they themselves are only actors playing different parts rather than genuine historical characters.
Though I did not notice historical dating in the film, its history is initially set in the fourth year of Queen Anne’s reign in 1705. While the Duke of Marlborough became effectively both the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defence, Sidney Godolphin, the first Earl of Godolphin (James Smith), served as Prime Minister, but Lady Churchill was his de facto political partner as Lord Churchill led the troops on the expedition to deal France a fatal last blow. After a final falling out with Queen Anne in 1712, Sarah left the court and focused on building Blenheim Palace; we see a plan for it in the film with occasional returns to politics.
There is a glancing reference to The Settlement Act of 1701 (between Scotland and England). The Act of Union of 1707 passed in accordance with The Settlement Act, but the threat of a Stuart and re-establishment of Catholicism with James, Anne’s half-brother assuming the throne after the death of the childless William and Mary, barely received a glancing comment in the movie, however central it was to that first decade of eighteenth century British history. After all, that was a fundamental foundation for the divide in Britain at the time and the fault line continues until today.
Sarah was indeed Anne’s confidante and had been assigned key roles to implement power. Sarah, as depicted in the film, was brutally honest with Anne and refused to use flattery to influence the Queen’s decisions. However, this was depicted as vicious disdain for the queen, whom she genuinely liked. Sarah actually employed argument and persistence. However, the arguments for one policy over another are never presented so that politics is simply reduced to personal preference and taste. Further, the vivacity and charm with which Sarah conducted herself are omitted in favour of a one-dimensional characterization of a mini-tyrant and bully. In historical reality, she was a strong believer in discussion, dialogue and debate, whatever the status of an individual, and this is hinted at in the library scenes and her conflict with Abigail over a missing book. The film does refer to the Queen’s need for affection and kindness and not just the bullying or an imagined manipulation by way of sex.
Again, in historical reality, Anne’s attachment to Sarah began to whither, not because of the manipulations of Abigail, but because Sarah was often away, weary of court pretensions and intrigue and preoccupied with seeing that her policies were being implemented. Further, Sarah was really only drawn to court not simply to brace up a wavering and fickle Anne, but a queen who was a Tory at heart and favoured isolationism and tax cuts rather than support abroad for English imperial ambitions. Sarah’s grieving over the death of her son, which could have brought her closer to the childless Anne, in fact had induced her to become withdrawn, and this was well before 1705. But the movie takes historical time lines even less seriously than the importance of politics.
Though Sarah was allied with the Whigs, she distrusted and feared the radicals in the party who were critical of the monarchy altogether. But in the film, you never understand why Sarah as well as the queen had to engage in a balancing act between the opposition Tories and the Whigs. In fact, I do not recall the party titles being used at all as if all values and beliefs can be eliminated from politics and replaced by cynical self-interest and personal passions.
Sarah and Abigail were indeed rivals for both Sarah’s affections and for power. Sarah did introduce her impoverished cousin to court to help her, but where is the evidence that Abigail had begun as a scullery maid? Further, the historical evidence suggests that Sarah did support Abigail out of motives of family solidarity and genuine concern for the unfortunate condition of her cousin and not just a cold calculation of utility. In fact, Abigail became Lady of the Bedchamber, personal attendant to Queen Anne, a year before the film ostensibly begins, and serves in that position until Queen Anne’s death.
Abigail did not obtain her position by guile, as depicted in the movie, though later when she became a rival, she did adopt some of the lessons in political maneuvering that she learned from Sarah. The reality was that Anne was afraid of the domineering Sarah. Even though the latter was effectively Chancellor of the Exchequer and controller of the privy purse, Anne hid from Sarah the fact that she had granted Abigail an annual stipend of £2,000.
But the two women were rather opposites in character, ones who initially were real friends but whose character drove them in different directions. Sarah, as portrayed, was blunt and direct almost to a fault, brilliant and politically passionate, both daring and demanding, while Abigail was more retiring, not simply as a secret and deceitful device, but genuinely affectionate and also indifferent to politics. Abigail was gentle and congenial and would never have put her foot on the rabbit to pretend she was crushing it. Such portraits go far beyond artistic license into the realm of calumny and deliberate distortion of history.
Anne was sick. Abigail offered her comfort and gentle strokes and allowed her to retreat from rough and tough politics. It was not Abigail’s arousal with her tongue inside Queen Anne that won Anne, but simple comfort of someone in great distress and need. Rather than a male sexual war transposed to females, the conflict between Sarah and Abigail was one of care for the nation versus care for the monarch of that nation. Sarah lost because Anne was an ideological partisan who did fail to get Abigail dismissed, but she wanted that dismissal for political reasons. For politics were the core of her life and passion. It was Sarah who circulated the unfounded rumour that Anne and Abigail were having a lesbian affair, a rumour which bounced back on her, especially in this film where she is portrayed as having begun and advanced her own career through sex.
What about the centre of the political debate over whether Lord Marlborough should or should not have pressed his victory over France in the Battle of Oudenarde to force France to sue for victory? The Tories argued not simply that they did not want to pay the taxes that the further pursuit of the war would cost, but that, in the aristocratic value system, defeating one’s enemy did not entail humiliating that nation. Total defeat was not part of their lexicon. But the Whigs with their economic and imperial ambitions wanted to take advantage of the fact that France, which, twenty years earlier, had been the greatest power in Europe, was now on the ropes.
However, the public and not just the landed aristocracy were truly tired of war and supported a peace platform following the War of the Spanish Succession. I do not know where the evidence might have come from for the suggestion that Abigail was responsible for the claim of Lord Marlborough’s embezzlement. The claim was real, but Abigail’s responsibility as well as the actual embezzlement both appear to be fake. So is the implication that Abigail prevented Sarah’s letters from reaching the queen. However, Sarah was indeed asked to return the gold key, the symbol of her authority. That took place in 1710, but you would not know where to place any event from watching the movie. It might help to read Sarah’s admittedly self-serving memoir, An Account of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough from her first coming to Court to the year 1710.
But movies are not required to be historically accurate, especially satire which depends on hyperbole and exaggeration. But if satire is to be pointed, if satire is to be acute, if satire is necessary to challenge power, then it is both important to understand the real power relations and the real stakes rather than engage in art for art’s sake in the name of making a movie that neither accurately nor adequately satirizes the real struggles of the beginning of the eighteenth century in England. Preferably, a satire set in the past should have currency with our current political struggles, usually the most important function of historical satire.
Of course, though Sarah went into exile, she returned with the death of Anne in 1714 and her succession by the Protestant Hanoverian line and the accession of George I to the throne, a line from which Queen Elizabeth II is directly descended. With all the wars and conflicts between and right up to Brexit, the underlying tensions within Britain have never been resolved even though England, and then Great Britain, had set aside its religious obsessions and civil wars in favour of peace and prosperity and was determined never again to place their debates at the foot of their monarch’s religious beliefs. It is a terrible pity when satire is wasted on sheer frivolous invention rather than targeting and pointing out real and deep fault lines in the political system.
Perhaps I simply have a great distaste for films based on the premise that humiliation is funny. Humiliation is devastating because it cannot even miss a bird with a shot when it is close up. The movie is only a faithful mirror of the director’s imagination. So why set it in history?
With the help of Alex Zisman