QUEEN CHARLOTTE. Against the rules

It came as quite a surprise to me how much I enjoyed Shonda Rhimes’s latest production.

Agnieszka Stasiowska

16 May 2023

Princess Charlotte, who comes from a hitherto despised part of society, becomes the face of the Great Experiment.

A Bridgerton Story

Are you a fan of the Bridgertons? To be honest – I am not. And that is why it came as quite a surprise to me how much I enjoyed Shonda Rhimes’s latest production – Queen Charlotte.

I do not even know what drove me to this series. After all, I abandoned The Bridgertons after just the first episode of the first season, annoyed not so much by the historical inconsistencies, as it is hardly expected of this kind of production to adhere rigidly to reality, but by the naive shallowness of the script, calculated to appeal to a slightly different audience than mine.

To Queen Charlotte, however – somewhat in spite of myself – I sat down. The warning board that appeared before the first scene amused me a bit, but I understand that it is a necessity. After all, a mass of ‘verified’ information about the fact that Sophie Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was indeed a woman of color has been circulating on the Internet ever since the first preview of the series was broadcast. However, that is not what this text will be about, firstly because the series creators have been honest in informing viewers that it basically shares only the characters’ names with the actual history, and secondly because a reasonable viewer will know even without this board that Queen Charlotte has about as much in common with historical reality as Netflix’s The Witcher has with its literary counterpart.

But less about the history, because this time – unlike in case of the main series based on Julia Quinn’s novels – Shonda Rhimes used her toys in a completely different way, and much more interesting to me.

The Great Experiment

Rhimes has created an alternate world in which Princess Charlotte, who comes from a hitherto despised part of society, becomes the face of the Great Experiment. Here we have Duchess Augusta Sachsen-Gotha, mother of British King George III, who – keeping in mind his illness – chooses as his wife a seventeen-year-old princess from a small principality, hoping that the exaltation to the dignity of queen of a person of status inferior to the king in every respect will ensure her own continuity of control over the monarch. The Great Experiment, which she thus gives rise to, involves allowing carefully selected subjects of color into the circles of the narrow socialite. This is how, among others, the newly appointed Lady Agatha Danbury, known from the Bridgerton series, arrives at the young queen’s court along with her well-aged husband.

Under the richly decorated but lightweight guise of The Great Experiment, Rhimes hides a serious and important message. First and foremost, there we have the issue of race – it is the first to catch the eye and sets the tone for the series. “New” aristocrats at court arouse distaste, consternation, at best amusement or sympathy. Their position is fresh and uncertain. They don’t quite understand why they have suddenly been invited to the royal rooms and don’t know how long this state of affairs will last. Another theme is the position of women in a world ruled by men, where a woman can survive either as a passive utilitarian object or as a gray eminence, directing her own or others’ fate from behind the back of her husband or son, unaware of her actions. The issue of illness, which is considered a disease of the spirit, not of the body, and for which there is no effective cure, is presented. From brutal, unproven, desperate treatments to hopeful conjuring of reality, from relative improvement to sudden collapse, Queen Charlotte gives us a painful picture of a grueling life with a sick person. Finally, we have the theme of forbidden, hopeless love – homosexual, extramarital – never fully fulfilled and uncertain of tomorrow.

The swing of emotions

All of this comes to the viewer in an eye catching, though not always easy and pleasant, form. The six episodes of the series are an emotional swing that involuntarily draws you in and engages you on many levels. The main credit here goes to the light script, which unobtrusively drags the viewer through these not at all trivial problems, while squeezing out a mass of authentic emotions. Also, the young actors do not disappoint. The main acting pair, Corey Mylchreest as King George III and India Amarteifio as Queen Charlotte look great together, there is a chemistry between them that much more experienced actors often lack. They both exhibit an energy that allows them to bring to life the characters they play. Golda Roushevel, in the role of the elderly Queen, and Michelle Fairley (known for her role as Lady Catelyn Stark in the Game of Thrones series) as Duchess Augusta present a cool and rational approach to life that they have acquired with age. Their weapons are well thought-out strategy and far-reaching plans, which the emotion-filled youngsters do not yet understand. The bridge between these two attitudes, on the other hand, is Lady Agatha Danbury (Arsema Thomas) – still young, but already experienced with marriage to a man much older than her. The scene between Lady Danbury and Duchess Augusta, in which the latter recognizes in the younger woman a worthy adversary, is a true display of acting by both ladies.

'You didn't go over the wall'

But let’s not forget that Queen Charlotte is a story about love, marriage, love within marriage and love outside of it. The final, almost one and a half hour episode of the series has squeezed many tears out of viewers. I’ll admit that although it is unusual for me, I got emotional as well. This is also what surprised me about A Bridgerton Story – that it was able to convey the story of more than one emotion without straying into kitsch. Of course, as in Bridgertons, it was not without long and frequent scenes of not-quite-nudity – some were shown in an unabashedly comedic manner – but the script handled it with dignity. And the scene of Brimsley’s lonely dance or Lady Danbury’s conversation with Violet Bridgerton about birthday hats, recalled by fans of the series who were touched to the core, will surely stay with viewers for a long time. As will the final dialogue of the royal couple (- ‘You didn’t go over the wall.’ – ‘I didn’t go over the wall.’).

Delighted viewers are asking about the next season of Queen Charlotte. In my opinion, it should not happen. The story of the king and his devoted spouse ended perfectly, everything that was supposed to be said was said. The world of the Bridgertons offers many characters around whom a small universe could be built – I myself would like to find out if the delicate seeds of Violet Bridgerton’s garden plants found fertile ground or what happened to Reynolds – but I know exactly enough about the queen and her life at the king’s side. And in some time, no doubt, I will return to this story.

Agnieszka Stasiowska

Agnieszka Stasiowska

She seeks different sensations in film, so she doesn't close herself off to any genre. She believes that every film has its own audience, and when it doesn't appeal to her, it is sure to strike a different, more inclined heart.

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