Category Archives: Royal Intrigue

’68 was ’68, pt. deux: 10 essential films

By Dennis Hartley

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Have you had it up to “here” yet with all the 1968 retrospectives? Yes, I know. Hang in there; we’re halfway through the year, so you should not have to weather too many more.

It can’t be helped…there’s something sexy about “50th” anniversaries And, there was something special about 1968. As Jon Meacham noted in a Time article earlier this year:

The watershed of 1968 was that kind of year: one of surprises and reversals, of blasted hopes and rising fears, of scuttled plans and unexpected new realities. We have embarked on the 50th anniversary of a year that stands with 1776, 1861 and 1941 as points in time when everything in American history changed. As with the Declaration of Independence, the firing on Fort Sumter and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the events of ’68 were intensely dramatic and lastingly consequential. From the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and of Robert F. Kennedy in June to the violence at the Democratic National Convention in August to the election of Richard Nixon in November, we live even now in the long shadow of the cascading crises of that year.

It was also a year when cinema came face-to-face with “scuttled plans and unexpected new realities.” The eclecticism of 1968’s top 10 grossing films indicates a medium (and an audience) in cultural flux; from cerebral art-house (2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby), low-budget horror (Night of the Living Dead), and star-powered adult drama (Bullitt, Planet of the Apes), to traditional stage-to-screen adaptations (The Odd Couple, Romeo and Juliet, Funny Girl) and standard family fare (The Love Bug, Oliver!).

Just for perspective, here were the top 10 domestic grossing films of 2017: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol. 2), Spiderman: Homecoming, It, Thor: Ragnarok, Despicable Me 3, and Justice League. Is it me-or is there a depressing, mind-numbing homogeneity to that list?

Oh, well…I’ll leave it to whomever is writing a retrospective in 2067 to sort that mess. If you will indulge me one more 1968 retrospective, here are my personal picks for the 10 best films of that year (plus 10 more I heartily recommend, if you want to delve deeper!).

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If…. – In this bold, anarchic 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson uses his depiction of the British public-school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time.

In his breakout performance, Malcolm McDowall plays Mick Travis, a “lower sixth form” student at a boarding school (McDowall would reprise his “Travis” persona in Anderson’s (loose) sequels O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis leads a trio of agitators (revolutionaries) who foment insurrection against abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters (i.e., the draconian System).

Some reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film has little to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). Politics aside, Anderson’s film could also be a pre-cursor to films like Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, The Chocolate War, and Heathers. David Sherwin and John Howlett co-wrote the screenplay.

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Hell in the Pacific – This 1968 offering from the eclectic John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance, Excalibur, Hope and Glory) is essentially a chamber drama, set on a small uninhabited Pacific Island in the closing days of WW2. It’s a two-character tale about a pair of stranded soldiers; one Japanese (Toshiro Mifune) and the other American (Lee Marvin).

The first third, a virtually dialog-free cat-and-mouse game between the sworn enemies, is a master class in physical acting by Mifune and Marvin. Eventually, necessity precipitates an uneasy truce, and the film becomes a fascinating study of the human need to connect (the adage “no man is an island” is figuratively and literally in play). The final act suggests an anti-war sentiment. It’s interesting that a film with such minimal dialog needed three screenwriters (Reuben Bercovitch, Alexander Jacobs, and Eric Bercovici).

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The Lion in Winter – Anyone who has delved into the history of royal family dynasties in the Middle Ages will attest that if you take away the dragons, witches, zombies and trolls…the rather nasty behavior on display in Game of Thrones isn’t that far removed from reality. After all, as Eleanor of Aquitane (Katherine Hepburn) deadpans in director Anthony Harvey’s historical drama, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”

Adapted for the screen by James Goldman from his own 1966 stage play, the story centers on a tempestuous family Christmas gathering in 1183, at the chateau of King Henry II (Peter O’Toole). All the scheming members of this family want for Christmas is each other’s head on a platter (ho ho ho!). Joining the merry festivities are Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton, John Castle, Nigel Terry, and Jane Merrow. Goldman’s beautifully crafted dialog sings (and stings) and the acting is superb. The film was nominated for 7 Oscars and earned 3 (for Hepburn, Goldman, and composer John Barry).

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No Way to Treat a Lady – Directed by Jack Smight (Harper, Kaleidoscope, The Illustrated Man) and adapted from William Goldman’s eponymous novel by John Gay, this terrific black comedy pits a neurotic NYC homicide detective (George Segal) against an evil genius serial killer (Rod Steiger).

While there is nothing inherently “funny” about a killer on the loose who targets middle-age women, there’s a surprising number of laughs; thanks to an overall New Yorker “attitude” and Segal’s harried interactions with his leading ladies-Eileen Heckart (as his doting Jewish mother), and Lee Remick (as his love interest). Steiger is typically over the top, but this is one of his roles where the water finds its own level…he was perfectly cast for this part. Comedy elements aside, the film is genuinely creepy and suspenseful; in some ways a forerunner to Silence of the Lambs.

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Once Upon a Time in the West – This is a textbook “movie for movie lovers” …cinema at its purest level, distilled to a perfect crystalline cocktail of mood, atmosphere and narrative. Although it is chockablock with “western” tropes, director Sergio Leone manages to honor, parody, and transcend the genre all at once with this 1968 masterpiece.

At its heart, it’s a simple revenge tale, involving a headstrong widow (Claudia Cardinale) and an enigmatic “harmonica man” (Charles Bronson) who both have a bone to pick with a gun for hire (Henry Fonda, cast against type as one of the most execrable villains in film). But big doings are afoot-like building a railroad and winning the (mythic) American West. Also with Jason Robards, Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Keenan Wynn.

Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci helped develop the story, and it wouldn’t be classic Leone without a rousing soundtrack by his longtime musical collaborator, Ennio Morricone (you won’t be able to get that “Harmonica Man Theme” out of your head).

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Petulia – An underappreciated, uncharacteristically “serious” character study/social commentary from director Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Three Musketeers). On the surface, it’s about a star-crossed affair between a young, flighty newlywed (Julie Christie) and a middle-aged physician with a crumbling marriage (George C. Scott).

In hindsight, one can also enjoy it as a “trapped in amber” wallow in the counter-cultural zeitgeist of the late 60s (filmed in San Francisco at the height of the Summer of Love, no less). Look for cameos from Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Grateful Dead, and comedy troupe The Committee. Beautifully acted and directed. One caveat: Lester’s non-linear approach is challenging (but rewarding). The screenplay was adapted by Lawrence B. Marcus and Barbara Turner from John Haase’s novel. Nicholas Roeg did the lovely cinematography.

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Planet of the Apes – The original 1968 version of The Planet of the Apes had a lot going for it. It was based on an acclaimed sci-fi novel by Pierre Boulle (whose semi-autobiographical debut, The Bridge on the River Kwai, had been adapted into a blockbuster film). It was helmed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Papillon, The Boys from Brazil). It had an intelligent script by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. And, of course, it had Charlton Heston, at his hammy apex (“God DAMN you ALL to HELL!!”).

Most notably, it opened the same month as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both Kubrick’s and Schaffner’s films not only blew minds but raised the bar on film-goers’ expectations for science-fiction movies; each was groundbreaking in its own way.

*SPOILER AHEAD* The 1968 film also ended with a classic Big Reveal (drenched in Serling’s signature irony) that still delivers chills. “They” could have left it there. Granted, the end also had Charlton Heston riding off into the proverbial sunset with a hot brunette, implying it wasn’t over yet, but lots of films end with the hero riding into the sunset; not all beg for a sequel. But Planet of the Apes turned out to be a surprise box office smash, and once Hollywood studio execs smell the money…I needn’t tell you that “they” are still churning out sequels to this day. But the progenitor remains the best entry.

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Rosemary’s Baby – “He has his father’s eyes!” Roman Polanski put the “goth” back in “gothic” in this truly unsettling metropolitan horror classic.  A New York actor (John Cassavetes) and his young, socially phobic wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow) move into a somewhat dark and foreboding Manhattan apartment building (the famed Dakota, John Lennon’s final residence), hoping to start a family. A busybody neighbor (Ruth Gordon) quickly gloms onto Rosemary with an unhealthy zest (to her chagrin). Rosemary’s nightmare is only beginning. No axe murders, no gore, and barely a drop of blood…but thanks to Polanski’s impeccable craft, this will scare the bejesus out of you and continue to creep you out after credits roll. Polanski adapted the screenplay from Ira Levin’s novel.

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The Swimmer – A riveting performance from Burt Lancaster fuels this 1968 drama from Frank Perry (and a non-credited Sydney Pollack, who took over direction after Perry dropped out of the project). It was adapted for the screen by Eleanor Perry, from a typically dark and satirical John Cheever story. Lancaster’s character is on a Homeric journey; working his way home via a network of backyard swimming pools. Each encounter with friends and neighbors (who apparently have not seen him in some time) fits another piece into the puzzle of a troubled, troubled man. It’s an existential suburban nightmare that can count American Beauty and The Ice Storm among its descendants.

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2001: A Space Odyssey – The mathematician/cryptologist I.J. Good (an Alan Turing associate) once famously postulated:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Good raised this warning in 1965, about the same time director Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke were formulating the narrative that would evolve into both the novel and film versions of 2001: a Space Odyssey. And it’s no coincidence that the “heavy” in 2001 was an ultra-intelligent machine that wreaks havoc once its human overseers lose “control” …Good was a consultant on the film.

Good was but one of the experts that Kubrick consulted, before and during production of this meticulously constructed masterpiece. Not only did he pick the brains of top futurists and NASA engineers, but enlisted some of the best primatologists, anthropologists, and uh, mimes of his day, to ensure that every detail, from the physicality of pre-historic humans living on the plains of Africa to the design of a moon base, passed with veracity.

Transcendent, mind-blowing, and timeless doesn’t begin to do justice. I don’t personally know too many people who haven’t seen this film…but I know there’s a few of you out there, in the dark (you know who you are). I envy you, because you may have a rare chance to see it on the big screen. Earlier this year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the film’s first run, Christopher Nolan supervised a 70mm re-release of the “unrestored” version that presents it as audiences originally experienced it in 1968 (fussy collectors needn’t worry, Warner Brothers is readying a sparkling 4K restoration for later this year).

Encore! Here’s 10 more recommendations:

The Battle of Algiers

The Bride Wore Black

Bullitt

Candy

Charly

Head

One Plus One

The Party

Targets

Yellow Submarine

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.