Category Archives: Royal Intrigue

SIFF 2013: The Horde **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2013)

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The Horde is an historical epic from director Andrey Proshkin based on a relatively obscure event (well, outside of Russia) that occurred in the 14th century, when the Metropolitan of Moscow (a monk also known as St. Alexius) saved his city from destruction by the Mongolian Golden Horde by “healing” the Khan’s mother, who had been stricken blind. The first half is involving, with royal intrigue and (literal) backstabbing among squabbling members of the Khanate, but once the story shifts to the endless suffering of St. Alexius as he wends his way home (we get it…he’s a saint) the film suffers too. Lavish production design and fine acting helps makes up the deficit.

Start the revolution without me: Farewell My Queen **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 28, 2012)

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From family trees the dukes do swing: Farewell, My Queen.

Benoit Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen is the type of period film that critics love, because it gives them carte blanche to drop  descriptive phrases  like “handsomely mounted” and “sumptuously detailed” with abandon. OK, so it is a handsomely mounted, sumptuously detailed period film that achieves verisimilitude by occasionally soiling the hem of its petticoats with (to paraphrase from Monty Python and the Holy Grail) “lovely” (and authentic!) 18th century filth.

That’s exactly what happens when an otherwise poised young lady named Sidonie (Lea Seydoux) goes unceremoniously ass over teakettle while scurrying to attend to the whims of one Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). The year is 1789, and that would be the same Marie Antoinette who was Queen of France at the time. As any history major would tell you, 1789 wasn’t the best year to have that particular gig. Indeed, it is July of 1789, and there’s a sizable coterie of disgruntled (and filthy!) 99 per centers days away from donning tri-corner hats and brandishing pitchforks to storm the Bastille.

But the Queen currently has more pressing concerns. For example, where oh where is her “finery book”? She’s just had an epiphany for a new dress design, while Sidonie (her personal reader) reads an article aloud to her from a fashion magazine as Marie wistfully ogles the pictures (you have to understand, they didn’t have cable back then). You are probably getting the picture that, despite the fomenting revolution on the streets of Paris, life within the Société Particulière de la Reine is continuing unabated. At least at first glance.

Through Sidonie’s eyes (she is one of the Queen’s primary “ladies in waiting”) we are given an upstairs/downstairs peek at  the doings at Versailles during the waning days of the French monarchy. In the drawing rooms, it’s all curtsies and hushed deference, but as we move farther out of royal earshot and closer to the servant’s quarters, gossip and rumors rule (as well as furtive bodice-ripping).

It’s nearly impossible to observe the disconnect of these privileged aristocrats carrying on in their gilded bubble while the impoverished and disenfranchised rabble sharpen up the guillotines without drawing parallels with our current state of affairs (history, if nothing else, is cyclical). The director seems sharp enough to “know that we know” this already, so he doesn’t hit us over the head with it. His screenplay (co-written by Gilles Taurand) manages to contemporize the emotional life of the characters, whilst managing to avoid the anachronistic conceits that plagued Sofia Coppola’s 2006 misfire, Marie Antoinette.

The film is carried primarily through earthy, believable performances fby Seydoux and Kruger (who also worked together in  Inglourious Basterds). Kruger conveys Marie’s spoiled frivolousness, but avoids broad caricature; there’s a resigned melancholy lurking beneath the veneer, adding an interesting layer to her performance. Kruger’s subtlety is particularly highlighted in a memorable scene where she confides to Seydoux regarding her “special” friendship with Gabrielle de Polignac (a duchess in the Queen’s court rumored to have been her lover). The dialog is strictly innuendo, but Kruger’s delivery and facial expressions say it all (it’s quite reminiscent of Laurence Oliver’s infamous “snails and oysters” conversation with Tony Curtis in Spartacus). This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this story, and it won’t be the last, but somehow…I never tire of watching the oligarchy crumble (pass the popcorn!).

DVD reissue: I, Claudius ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 31, 2012)

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She preys like a Roman with her eyes on fire:  Sian Phillips as Livia

I Claudius 35th Anniversary Edition – Acorn Media DVD set

Political questions, if you go back thousands of years, are ephemeral, not important. History is the same thing over and over again.”

 -Woody Allen

35 years ago (best to my hazy recollection), I was living in a house in Fairbanks, Alaska with 4 or 5 (or was it 6 or 7?) of my friends. Being 20-something males, ragingly hormonal and easily sidetracked by shiny objects, it was a rare occasion when all the housemates would be congregated in one room for any period of time. But there was one thing that consistently brought us together. For about a three month period in the fall of 1977, every Sunday at 9pm, we would abruptly drop whatever we were doing (sfx: guitars, bongs, Frisbees, empty Heineken bottles and dog-eared Hunter Thompson paperbacks hitting the floor) and gather round a 13-inch color TV (replete with Reynolds Wrap-reinforced rabbit ears) to rapturously watch I, Claudius on Masterpiece Theatre.

While an opening line of “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus…” could portend more of a snooze-inducing history lecture, rather than 11 hours of must-see-TV, the 1976 BBC series, adapted from Robert Graves’ 1934 historical novel about ancient Rome’s Julio-Claudian dynasty, was indeed the latter, holding U.S. viewers in thrall for its 12-week run. While it is quite possible that at the time, my friends and I were slightly more in thrall with the occasional teasing glimpses of semi-nudity than we were with, say, the beauty of Jac Pulman’s writing, the wonder of the performances and historical complexity of the narrative, over the years I have come to realize that I think I learned everything I needed to know about politics from watching (and re-watching) I, Claudius.

It’s all there…the systemic greed and corruption of the ruling plutocracy, the raging hypocrisy, the grandstanding, glad-handing and the back-stabbing (in this case, both figurative and literal). Seriously, over the last 2000 years, not much has changed in the political arena (this election year in particular finds us tunic-deep in bread and circuses; by Jove, what a clown show). Although it’s merely a happy coincidence that a newly minted 35th anniversary edition of the series was released on DVD this week by Acorn Media, the timing couldn’t be more apt. I’ve been finding it particularly amusing the past few days to zip through the nightly network newscasts on the DVR, then immediately follow it up with an episode of I, Claudius so I can chuckle (or weep) over the parallels.

Kawkinkydinks with the ongoing decline of the American empire notwithstanding, the series holds up remarkably well. In fact, it still kicks major gluteus maximus on most contemporary TV fare (including HBO and Showtime). What’s most impressive is what they were able to achieve with such austere production values; the writing and the acting is so strong that you barely notice that there are only several simple sets used throughout (compare with Starz’s visually striking but otherwise chuckle-headed Spartacus series).

It’s hard to believe that Derek Jacobi was in his mid-30s when he took on the lead role; not only does he convincingly “age” from 20s to 60s, but subtly unveils the grace and intelligence that lies behind Claudius’s outwardly afflicted speech and physicality. Another standout in this marvelous cast is Sian Phillips, with her deliciously wicked performance as Livia (wife of Augustus) who will stoop to anything in order to achieve her political goals (Machiavelli’s subsequent work was doo-doo, by comparison). George Baker excels as her long-suffering son, Tiberius, as does Brian Blessed, playing Augustus. And John Hurt’s take on the mad Caligula is definitive, in my book. The new transfer on the Acorn release is excellent, making this DVD set well worth your denarius.

Lovelorn, non-smoking Huguenot seeks same: The Princess of Montpensier **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2011)

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Oh, royal houses of Europe…how I adore you. My sexy Saxe-Coburgs, my beloved Bourbons, Bonapartes and Burgundys; my saucy Tudors, Windsors and Romanovs; and I want to give a shout-out to any of you sassy Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Gluksburgs who may be in da house tonight. How much I love and admire your pomp, your pageantry…and your colorful, endearingly filthy, ever-subservient peasantry. And your rich history-so rife with war, intrigue, and refreshingly unapologetic in-breeding (*sigh*).

For the purposes of this review, we zero in on the French duchies of Guise and Montpensier. In 1570s France, things aren’t going so well on the religious front. Catholics and Huguenots are slaughtering each other like cattle over New Testament bragging rights. This is the backdrop for The Princess of Montpensier, a well-acted and handsomely mounted (but curiously detached) bodice-ripping costume drama from Bertrand Tavernier (‘Round Midnight).

The tale (adapted from Madame de La Fayette’s 17th century short story by Jean Cosmos, Francois-Olivier Rosseau and the director) centers around a fetching young aristocrat named Marie de Mezrieres (Melanie Thierry). Marie has a breathless, Harlequin romance crush on dashing war hero Duke Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel)-and the feeling’s mutual (if yet to be  consummated).

Alas, there is a major roadblock straight up ahead for the two lovebirds. Marie’s ambitious father, the Marquis de Mezrieres (Phillipe Magnan) has struck a mutually beneficial backroom deal with the Duke de Montpensier (Michel Vuillermoz) to marry her off with the Duke’s son, the Prince of Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet)-who also happens to be the cousin of Marie’s beloved Henri (following all this so far?).

The Prince and his cousin have been friendly rivals since childhood; but now the hot-headed Henri is seething with resentment about the Prince’s pending marriage to Marie. However, since he shares his cousin’s soldierly sense of duty to wipe out the heretical usurpers, Henri puts Jealousy and Envy on the back burner and channels all that hostility into ministering their common cause (i.e. disemboweling Protestants on the battlefield).

In the meantime, Marie receives sage advice from her mother, the Marquise (Florence Thomassin) to essentially do the same; put the romantic stirrings for Henri aside and focus on her “duty” (i.e. happily submit and learn to love the Prince-like him or no). After an awkward, decidedly un-sexy wedding night, with parents and in-laws holding vigil just outside the doors of the boudoir and then studiously examining the soiled bed sheets immediately afterwards to confirm consummation, the two eventually develop a cautious affection for one another (the Prince more so than his wife).

Of course, Marie and Henri are still struggling with their smoldering desire to jump each other’s bones. Luckily, Marie soon finds a distraction-in the form of a middle-aged gentleman named Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), who is also the most interesting and complex character in the film. Chabannes, a seasoned soldier and an intellectual, is the Prince’s long-time friend and mentor, who not only schooled the younger man in the art of swordplay, but in the sciences, arts and letters as well.

Chabannes also happens to be a Huguenot-but has declared himself a political neutral in the current conflict, hanging up his scabbard in disgust after having had his fill of wanton killing in the name of God. Eager to groom his Princess for her debut before the Royal Court in Paris, the Prince arranges for Chabannes to tutor her while he is off to war. Before he knows it, the tutor finds himself falling in (unrequited) love with his student.

Tavernier’s effort strongly recalls two films-John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) and Patrice Chereau’s Queen Margot (1994). The former, adapted from Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, is set in England, during the much later Victorian age, but features a heroine (portrayed by Julie Christie) who, like the Princess Marie, is headstrong, intelligent and beautiful, and likewise becomes a crazy-making object of desire for three men with disparate personalities (an arrogant young soldier, a wealthy, lovelorn middle-aged landowner and a poor farmer with a heart of gold).

The latter film is quite similar in theme to Tavernier’s on several levels; again featuring a strong female protagonist (Isabelle Adjani, as the sister of France’s King Charles IX) who is forced into an arranged marriage that separates her from her true love and plunges her into the midst of royal intrigue. Chereau’s film is also set against the backdrop of the Catholic-Huguenot wars (both films also re-enact the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre).

Unfortunately, The Princess of Montpensier lacks the spark and passion of the aforementioned films . Tavernier gets the period detail right, and his film is gorgeous to look at (thanks to DP Bruno de Keyzer), but something is missing. I don’t fault the cast; it’s the characters’ motivations that elude us. There’s detachment here; it’s like watching ornately carved pieces shuffled about on a chessboard. The film is not unlike Marie herself-an obscure object of desire at once enticingly beautiful and frustratingly unreachable.

Thin Lizzie: Elizabeth: The Golden Age (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 20, 2007)

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Alas and anon…just when you thought it was safe to assemble an armada and go back into the water, here comes another costumer concerning a certain virgin queen. Bollywood director Shekhar Kapur has re-enlisted Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush for one more crack at the old girl in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Picking up a few decades hence from where he left off in his 1998 film Elizabeth (which depicted her ascendancy) Kapur condenses a turbulent, historically significant 4-year period during Elizabeth’s reign into what appears to be a very eventful week in the life of HRM.

As the film opens, we are introduced to a much more wary and care-worn monarch (an alarmingly thin Blanchett) holding court over England’s destiny. Gone is the radiant, rosy-cheeked and free-spirited “Bess” who lit up the screen in the previous film; she has been replaced by a mercurial, slightly paranoid monarch constantly on guard against duplicitous well-wishers and sycophants. Even close confidants are kept at arm’s length, especially her Machiavellian “spymaster”, Sir Francis Walsingham (Rush).

The Queen has two big headaches keeping her on edge. The first is her cousin, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (Samantha Morton, in a fiercely intense performance) who feels she is the rightful heir to the English throne, not the childless “bastard” Elizabeth (who is a Protestant to boot). Mary has some influential Catholic sympathizers at home and abroad, including the other royal pain in Elizabeth’s derriere, King Philip II of Spain (Jordi Molla), who gets his jollies jeering at the English queen and rattling his saber.

Elizabeth finds a temporary distraction from all her political woes when the dashing adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen, in all his rangy glory) strolls into her court, full of tales and loaded with booty from his latest excursion to the New World. Elizabeth is obviously charmed, but has to suppress her schoolgirl crush for sake of appearances. However, when she learns that Raleigh has fathered a child and secretly eloped with her favorite chambermaid, Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish) she is not so amused, and gives him a nice cozy jail cell to explore for a few years. Not to worry, however-history intervenes and the Queen pardons Raleigh in time to put him in charge of naval defenses in the year of the Armada (1588), which fuels the climactic (and rousing) battle scenes.

This is one of those “historical” epics where you have to make a decision going in whether you are going to nitpick and get cranky over odd factual inaccuracies and anachronisms, or just sit back and bask in the opulent pageantry and bodice-ripping court intrigue with a shit-eating grin on your face. Keep in mind, the screenplay is by William Nicholson, who scripted the (very) loose re-invention of the Camelot legend, First Knight, and Michael Hirst, who wrote for The Tudors, Showtime’s recent mini-series about the reign of Henry VIII. In other words, this ain’t Masterpiece Theater, folks.

Kapur seems indecisive; as if he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to make an updated version of Fire Over England (which depicted Elizabeth and Raleigh embroiled in court intrigue in the year of the Armada) or pay homage to The Sea Hawk (the swashbuckling action scenes featuring Owens in full Errol Flynn mode will definitely make history majors twitch). Nicholson and Hirst’s dialogue fuels some spirited exchanges between Blanchett and Owen in the first half of the film that reminded me of the clever repartee from Shakespeare in Love, but it ultimately clashes with some of the heavier moments later on (Samantha Morton nearly steals the movie in her execution scene, but it seems to belong in a different, darker-toned film).

If you are a genre fan, you’ll be pleased. Blanchett is excellent in the lead role, and Owen is charismatic as always. Rush is good, although his character is a bit one-dimensional (not his fault). One thing for sure-this should be the last of Liz the First for a while. Right? Tell me there isn’t another one in pre-production. Prithee (sp.?), tell me.