Anne suffers the worst curse for female royals: the inability to bear an heir. Trapped within a body deemed useless, devoid of stimulus, and immobilised by pus-filled legs under scaffolded dresses, she is both almighty and irrelevant. She becomes a puppet to her parliament and courtiers, not least to her closest advisor Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz).
This world of precarious alliances and pompous display is made overt in the court dance scene, choreographed by Constanza Macras. Anne is wheeled in: her court pause, out of obligation, to bow before resuming their mingling.
The movement of the court is stiff, formal. Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) awkwardly pops back into his hip when supplicating to Anne, with both enforced poise and simmering frustration. His cheeks are bloodily rouged; his wig a small, tortured sheep.
Not so Sarah. She sweeps in, a demanding physical presence that exudes power in a tastefully tailored dress. Sensing the Queen may be misled by Harley into a decision she, Sarah, would not like, she distracts the court with a dance. She circles the gaggle hawkishly, her eyes claiming everything she sees. Her pointed finger lands on her chosen partner, Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), as an after-thought.
At first the couple dance as we would expect; heads inclined, torsos close but not vulgar, arms at an acceptable height. We are caught up in the nullifying rhythm, we are lulled into the tasteful.
Then, Sarah is hoisted up and lashed unceremoniously around Samuel’s waist. Their faces remain deadpan. Sarah is dropped down and they’re voguing, messily. Once again, Sarah is awkwardly bumped up into the air, skirts a-blazing. The pair career down what now looks like a modern-day catwalk, Samuel dropping low.
The scene delights in the anachronism between intricate historical setting and parodic contemporary movement, but doesn’t reconcile them (compare this more innocent scene in Brian Helgeland’s 2001 A Knight’s Tale, where the diegetic medieval music bleeds into David Bowie’s ‘Golden Years‘.)
Instead, the scene brilliantly holds its nerve, sitting in that wonderfully murky area between naturalism and surrealism. We laugh abruptly, uncertain at what we’re viewing. Our attention is sharpened, lacking cues to slip into easily readable contexts.
The camera cuts to Anne’s face in an agonisingly drawn-out shot, a come-down from the dizzying high of the dance. Her features move from inane enjoyment to, what, anger? Jealousy? Realisation that Sarah, her lover (as we find out next in an ‘aha!’ moment), might be toying with her?
The spirit of the Queen surfaces from under its fleshy, worldly confines. With both petulance and intelligence, Queen Anne barks ‘Stop it!’ and concludes the scene with a political move designed to enrage Sarah.
Surrounded by arcane rules, the body persists in its whims and failures. Sycophants fall in and out of line; the Queen’s favour can easily become the Queen’s fury.
A most fickle world of power and celebrity. ●