Few monarchs would have had more reason to bemoan their plight than Queen Anne, who lost seventeen children, mostly through miscarriages and who fought a ceaseless battle against ill-health. Olivia Colman gives a superb performance and invests her with a good deal of humanity despite her neuroses, tempers, obesity and frailties. Her “children” are her seventeen rabbits, one for each lost child.
The film centres on her relationship with Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) who initially exercises almost total control over the Queen and also over affairs of state. Anne is emotionally dependent on her and her hold over her is also sexual. Her husband the Duke is fighting a war against the French which needs to be funded and is supported by the Whig Party under Lord Godolphin (James Smith), but opposed by the Tories under Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) whom Anne favours. Sarah is also embezzling vast sums which are being appropriated by the Marlboroughs as they build Blenheim Palace.
We see some events from the viewpoint of Abigail (Emma Stone), a cousin of Sarah’s, who has fallen on hard times and whom she employs as her maid but who later fatefully supplants her in Anne’s affections. Sarah’s reaction after a bizarre incident involving Abigail, which nearly leads to her own death, causes the breakdown of her friendship with Anne. This destroys her influence as well as her husband’s career.
Rachel Weisz plays Sarah as ruthless, ambitious and temperamental. It is a superb portrait of a powerful woman who faces a devastating fall from grace. As Abigail, who becomes Lady Masham, Emma Stone is marvellous as a beautiful but callous schemer who stops at nothing to increase her influence with the Queen. Nicholas Hoult is excellent as the conniving Tory leader and the intrigues of the rival politicians add a comic touch to the court scenes.
The film looks marvellous. Sandy Powell’s costumes are gloriously colourful and it is much enriched by music from famous composers of the period. The sumptuousness of the decor adds poignancy to the loneliness and unhappiness that can accompany power.
Anne is a trapped in a gilded cage, though she is able to ride and, somehow, survives as queen despite her incapacities. A highly intelligent script highlights the conflict between her private struggles and her public duties. Director Yorgos Lanthimos quirkily divides the film into titled sections. Anne deserves some pity in this mendacious world and this is an irresistibly voyeuristic portrayal of it which is also full of pathos.
The BP Exhibition – I Am Ashurbanipal King of The World, King of Assyria – British Museum
The grandiose title of this exhibition and many of its contents are reminiscent of Shelley’s portrait, in his poem Ozymandias, of the shattered stone statue which once symbolised supreme power and ruthless brutality but had declined to nothingness. Ashurbanipal is now little known but he was ruler of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, then the world’s largest, from 669 BC to his death around 631 BC, though this was due to unknown causes. It is extraordinary that, within twenty years, this vast empire had collapsed owing to over-expansion and civil war with its capital, Nineveh, being totally destroyed.
Daesh (ISIL) has recently demolished many important archaeological sites during its recent occupation of parts of Iraq. A section here is devoted to this and to current efforts to save important Iraqi cultural sites.
This is an exhibition on a grand scale and which, like its predecessor in the Sainsbury Wing, The Scythians, uses technological advances in display to great effect. The reliefs tell the stories of Ashurbanipal’s victories; there seemed no limit to his military glory though he never actually led his armies into battle. There are also many graphic scenes of his prowess hunting lions in wonderfully vivid and animated reliefs which have justly become famous.
What makes the reliefs comprehensible is the illumination of selected sections with enlarged written text alongside. Some of the bloodiest, including the slaughter of captives and the displays of severed heads, show the horrible fate which faced many of those defeated by his armies. We also see examples of reliefs in their original colours and many artefacts including ornate objects in gold and some highly imposing sculptures. We get a flavour of the furnishings of his sumptuous palace too. There is also an unforgettably macabre relief of him and his wife celebrating after one of his victories whilst the severed head of the vanquished King of Elam is hanging from a nearby tree.
Ashurbanipal also boasted of his learning which was clearly exceptional as he had the largest library in the ancient world. Many of the tablets are on show here. This exhibition shows the cultural richness and sophistication of Assyrian society as well as its obsession with size whilst also emphasizing the way it exulted in cruelty and barbarism.