Monthly Archives: June 2021

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

*. Elizabeth: The Golden Age is director Shekhar Kapur’s sequel to his 1998 film Elizabeth, which also starred Cate Blanchett in the title role. The Golden Age wasn’t as well received though, and actually managed to be quite controversial, especially for a historical costume epic.
*. The controversy took two forms. In the first place, The Golden Age is bad history. Very bad history. I won’t bother going through all the liberties taken, as there are websites out there that do a better job of fact-checking and there’s so much that’s wrong it would take me forever to go through it all. Suffice it to say that even Blanchett was concerned about people mistaking the film for fact: “It’s terrifying that we are growing up with this very illiterate bunch of children, who are somehow being taught that film is fact, when in fact it’s invention. Hopefully though an historical film will inspire people to go and read about the history. But in the end it is a work of history and selection.”
*. The second controversial point has to do with perceived anti-Catholic bias. This is, on the face of it, pretty hard to deny, especially since it was something already on display throughout much of Elizabeth. Now you could argue that the main action of the story here has to do with Catholic Spain’s attempt to invade England, climaxing in the defeat of Hector Barbossa’s Spanish Armada, so that religious conflict was baked into the story. But still . . .
*. My first thought was that the whole thing was being presented as a response to 9/11. The villainous Spanish, after all, are religious fanatics sending their secret terrorist cells into the liberal democracy of Tudor England even before they launch their unholy strike. What are those banners of Christ but the black flags of ISIS, five hundred years early? And Philip II, isn’t he Osama bin Laden?
*. Catholic groups had every right to feel upset. Put simply, the Spanish aren’t just the enemy, they are evil. All those golden crosses sinking with the Armada are so much Papist trumpery we are meant to exult in the destruction of. Meanwhile, back on Albion’s shores, freedom reigns! Go Reformation!

*. My jaw dropped only five minutes, or less, into The Golden Age. As it went on though, my shock turned to amusement, and finally to hilarity. This is a ridiculous movie, but since it made me laugh and hoot at the screen not once but many times I can’t say I didn’t have a good time. In other words, it’s so bad it’s kind of good.
*. Basically Kapur has taken some events and characters from the historical record, scrambled them together, and turned them into a sumptuous period romance. Just look at Raleigh (Clive Owen), the dashing pirate stepping straight off the cover of a Harlequin, coming onto the screen with a bold gesture and a smoldering glance directed at the repressed queen. Here’s a fellow more than able to fill Robert Dudley’s codpiece from the previous film. Of course he’s a charming rogue, with nothing at all being said about his starting his career as a slaver. Meanwhile, even though Elizabeth is a queen, and a modern, proto-feminist, enlightened monarch at that, she’s still a woman damn it! Of course she melts, by the fireplace, in the hands of this rough, manly man. She may be “called” the Virgin Queen and was childless but . . . she’s a woman damn it! Of course she likes babies!

*. Sir Walter doesn’t just walk the walk though. He can talk the talk. Merely hearing the accounts of his travels is enough to trigger a royal orgasm. And he can comfort her highness with language like this: “We mortals have many weaknesses. We feel too much. Hurt too much. All too soon we die. But we do have the chance of love.” Swoon!
*. A good example of the way the romantic bent overwhelms the history can be seen in the execution of Mary Stuart. By every historical account this was a horrible bit of business. It took the executioner a few whacks of the axe and apparently her lips were still moving for fifteen minutes after decapitation. When her head was held aloft her noggin fell out of her wig. A small dog emerged from under her skirts. Do we get any of that here? No, just a cutaway after a gloriously staged and lit build-up.

*. Well, I’ve said before that the Tudors have never gone out of style and I think it’s true that romance of this kind hasn’t either. So enjoy Sir Walter unlacing Bess’s bodice, or playing horsey with the queen, and slooooowly leaning in for a kiss, before he sails off to smash the Spanish fleet pretty much single-handedly. While Liz watches from a clifftop. I’m not making that up.
*. Full credit, and more, to Cate Blanchett. It’s nothing short of a miracle that she gets through all of this with her dignity intact. But she does. Despite Kapur’s constant efforts at upstaging her with arty shots from high angles, or taken from behind screens or other obstacles. The whole thing looks, and sounds, like a commercial for Tudor toiletries. They could have even used the same tag-line: “Woman. Warrior. Queen.” A historical travesty and a joke in pretty much every other respect, it may survive as camp but I think is more likely to be completely forgotten in another few years. Though some trash can be hard to get rid of. It’s terrifying to think of the children . . .

Cymbeline (1913)

*. I don’t suppose there are many people today who know the name Florence La Badie but she was a big star in the early days of film, before there really were stars, or a star system anyway. She died in 1917 as the result of a car accident, and her Wikipedia entry remarks that she was “the first major female film star to die while her career was at its peak.” I cite Wikipedia. In the venerable Film Encyclopedia (ed. Ephraim Katz) her birth date is given as 1893 and it’s said she died at the age of 23. Wikipedia says she was born in 1888 and died when she was 29. Alas for the authority of print, I’m inclined to believe Wikipedia.
*. In any event, I don’t think she’s a household name today. She deserved her celebrity in the 1910s though, as she’s quite a presence. I think she gives a great performance here. A lot of it is done with her eyes instead of the grand gesticulations you’d expect. Even watching what looked like an unrestored print in poor condition I was mesmerized by her face. Look at her as she’s watching the battle, or as she changes from moping to cheerful when her brothers escort her from the cave. That’s star power. You’re not paying attention to anything else that’s happening on screen.
*. Aside from her there isn’t much to get excited about. Cymbeline has a complicated plot that is necessarily streamlined quite a bit here by the Thanhouser Company, who specialized in these literary adaptations at a time when film was seen as having a highbrow audience. There is no Jupiter descending in the dream of Posthumus, for example, which might have been fun but probably would have broken the budget. This is a film that looks done on the cheap, with tatty costumes and sets that don’t seem to have had much work put into them. Even the big battle scene is just a handful of actors banging swords on shields.
*. Also downgraded are the villains, with the Queen and Cloten greatly diminished. I’m not sure what happens to them at the end. I think they just got dropped (the actor playing Cloten isn’t even credited). Iachimo, however, is a credibly slimey piece of work, and there are hints of something special happening with the lighting in the scene where he sneaks out of the trunk in Imogen’s bedroom. But only hints. It was 1913 and as I say, the surviving print isn’t in the best shape. SoCal also doesn’t look much like Wales. Yes there are hills, but they aren’t very green.
*. It’s not a play that’s produced very often. I don’t think there was a major film version until 2014, over a hundred years later. It may take us as long to see another.

Elizabeth (1998)

*. Again with the Tudors of myth. Henry VIII was a lousy king, and Elizabeth not much of a queen, but they were larger-than-life figures and there was the Reformation and defeating the Spanish Armada so they keep getting trotted out as heroes of a kind of English golden age. For director Shakhar Kapur Elizabeth gets credit for everything from Shakespeare to Virginia (from his DVD commentary: “she discovered Virginia . . . she colonized it”). Good Queen Bess is Astraea and Gloriana and everything else her courtiers, in the great age of such obsequious propaganda, flattered her as being.
*. But as I said in my notes on The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, movies have always preferred the Tudor myth to reality. So it’s only a little surprising that in 1998 that’s still the route being taken here in a movie that might just have easily been called The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Dudley. With “private” in both cases being a euphemism for “made up.”
*. I don’t think anyone expects these costume epics to pass historical muster, but even so there are some wild liberties taken here that don’t pass the test of probability. Most notable is the fact that Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) never conspired against Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) and that his marriage was obviously known to her. Did Kapur think he was making Shakespeare In Love with its revelation that Will Shakespeare was married being the plot twist that alienated Lady Viola in that film?
*. A lot of historical dramas have academic consultants or advisers on the payroll. Did they here? What did they think of all this? Listening to the commentary it isn’t clear if Kapur felt that Elizabeth really didn’t know that Dudley wasn’t married. I think he was just content that his Elizabeth had been kept in the dark (as it that were possible!). On the matter of Dudley’s conspiracy Kapur sounds completely confused, saying that Dudley had been in contact with the Spanish ambassador but that he (Kapur) had left that part out because he thought nobody would believe it. So he made up an even more far-fetched and entirely fictional conspiracy?
*. The commentary left me baffled as to where Kapur really stood on such matters. I don’t think anyone believes that Walsingham killed Mary of Guise but Kapur tells us that “It was always said that Walsingham killed her,” and that he is only asking questions. Questions “that don’t need answering, they just have to be raised.” This sounds suspiciously like a former president of the United States, and just as greasy.
*. I did like Kapur’s commentary for the light it shed on some of his creative decisions. Throughout the movie he favours two particular kinds of shots: from directly overhead and shooting through a veil or screen or some other obstruction. I’m not a fan of either, but he does give his reasons.
*. For the first: “I often get asked why I use all these overheard shots. There were two reasons. I think that I’ve always believed that man and woman, everybody ultimately, no matter how powerful or weak you are, are products of your own destiny, and I consistently use these overhead shots to make people look smaller than God, [or] not God so much as destiny. Even the Pope is smaller than destiny. Even Elizabeth is smaller than her destiny.” And a second reason he gives is to “break the grammar” of how some scenes, like the burnings at the stake in the prologue, are usually presented. Overhead shots make these events seem “stranger” because we’re not used to them.
*. Then there are the obstructions. This is paired with his moving camera to add to a sense of sinister voyeurism. “This constant roving camera: I decided at one point the camera must become the greatest conspirator of all, the greatest threat to Elizabeth is me, me the director and the camera. We’ve got to emotionally be like a snake, going around her, going around her, threatening her, ready to strike at any time, from every nook and corner.” Looking at Elizabeth through veils or screens is part of the same thing, giving the sense that people are spying on Elizabeth all the time.
*. Well, you may not care for those justifications, or think they work, but at least he had his reasons and I’m glad he shared them with us. It’s a good commentary, in part for giving us a lot to engage, and disagree, with.

*. As with any bit of Tudormania the settings and costumes are, if not the thing, an absolutely essential part of the whole. The cast seem relaxed in their roles. Fiennes is dewy and a bit of a wimp. Geoffrey Rush as Walsingham (also coming over from Shakespeare in Love), Richard Attenborough as Cecil, pre-Bond Daniel Craig as an albino monk from Opus Dei sent to kill Robert Langdon, Kelly Macdonald as a lady-in-waiting for Gosford Park, Vincent Cassel stealing the show as a cross-dressing Duke of Anjou. Cate Blanchett is great and carries things as an Elizabeth who is, once again, a defender of freedom of conscience and proto-feminist icon, ready to deliver lines like “I am not your Elizabeth. I am no man’s Elizabeth. And if you think to rule, you are mistaken. I will have one mistress here . . . and no master!” You go, girl!
*. Adventures in translation. When the decadent Duke of Anjou first meets Elizabeth he sweet talks her about what he’s going to do to her “chat.” Which is French for cat, so the English translation is obvious. In the English subtitles, however, it is given as “quinny.” Is “quinny” Renaissance slang? I’ve heard of “quim,” but it’s rarely used nowadays. I don’t think I’ve ever heard “quinny” before, or seen it in writing.
*. Seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (it would lose out to Shakespeare in Love). Unfortunately, such encouragement only led Kapur to double down on all of the problems here when he came to make Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). In that later film the romance would be even more Harlequin and more ahistorical while the anti-Catholic bias would be pushed even deeper into caricature. And by going further The Golden Age does achieve a kind of badness that is actually a bit of fun. This movie, on the other hand, is entirely forgettable.

Carry On Henry VIII (1971)

*. Around halfway through Carry On Henry VIII there’s a bit of dialogue where Henry’s queen sees Henry escorting a young beauty out to the garden for a tryst. The queen asks Cardinal Wolsey “Why is he taking her out into the garden?” Wolsey, running cover, replies “Oh, I expect just to get a little air, ma’am.” The queen rejoins: “How many more heirs does he want?”
*. That’s the only line in this movie that I even got a smile out of. By this point the Carry On series has pretty much run its course and was starting to feel out of date as well as tired. Apparently this one, the 21st if you were keeping count, was actually criticized for its attitude toward women. Something that you’d think was superfluous given their track record, but the hunting of the buxom lass really is disappointing, even for this lot.
*. A prefatory notice tells us that, as history, the movie we’re about to see is complete cobblers. This is a British expression having its origin in Cockney slang that I had to look up. Basically we’re in a sort of alternative universe where Henry VIII has just sent one wife to the block and wants to get rid of the next, Marie of Normandy. Don’t try to make any sense out of it, as cobblers it is.
*. Ding-dong, the gang’s all here: Sid James, naturally, is Henry, riffing off of Charles Laughton in tearing apart a chicken and doing his best for England in the bedroom. Kenneth Williams is Cromwell, Joan Sims is Queen Marie, Charles Hawtrey is Sir Roger de Lodgerley, Terry Scott is Cardinal Wolsey. The jokes are the usual bits of innuendo and bawdy puns, with a few topical references thrown in. The final line is a dig at the Labour Party. There’s also a joke about a new sin tax Henry wants to impose that I feel has to be referring to something going on in England at the time, but I don’t know what.
*. I’ve heard the coat worn by James is the same as the one worn by Richard Burton in Anne of the Thousand Days. And that the original alternative title was going to be Anne of a Thousand Lays. But I guess that was taking things just a bit too far, never mind that it made no sense. The long title (at least in the UK) was Carry on Henry or Mind My Chopper! Which, you’ll notice, also isn’t funny at all.
*. Were they thinking of doing the same baby gag as at the end of Follow That Camel and cut something at the last minute? It really looks like a shot was taken out, and it’s obvious that this was the joke they were setting up. But I don’t know enough about the production of the film to say.
*. Not worth bothering with unless you’re a hardcore fan, which I don’t suppose there are very many of these days.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

*. Hal Wallis back for another round of Tudormania, with director Charles Jarrott again at the helm. You could almost think of it as a sequel to Anne of the Thousand Days, and indeed the lead part was apparently intended for Geneviève Bujold. Even the basic structure of the story is the same, with a falling out between the heroine and England’s monarch, leading to the destruction of the former, only for her to be avenged, as prophesied, by her offspring.
*. It might have worked. They weren’t afraid to take a number of historical liberties in order to play up the main draw, which is the conflict between Mary (Vanessa Redgrave) and Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson). Even to the point where they are shown secretly getting together twice (it’s generally assumed by historians that they never actually met). But the foregrounding of this fraught relationship is also telling. The thing is, Elizabeth has more vitality than Mary, and as played by Jackson — busting a lute or beating the hell out of poor Dudley — she puts Redgrave, playing one of history’s great victims, in the shade.

*. Perhaps that’s why, in the words of Pauline Kael in her review of this one, “Mary’s ‘tragic destiny’ has always been a movie flop” (I take it that she’s mainly referring here to the 1936 Katherine Hepburn vehicle Mary of Scotland). Mary led an eventful life, at least for its first couple of acts, and was not without resources, but Scottish politics chewed her up.
*. You can tell they were really trying to pump up the drama in conventional modern ways. Darnley is played by Timothy Dalton as a whining homosexual (typecast after his turn in The Lion in Winter?) who was bedding David Riccio (Ian Holm). I guess there were rumours about this at the time, but then rumours of homosexuality were a standard way of tearing someone down in the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, Mary only has eyes for Bothwell (Nigel Davenport). The truth was probably more mundane. Darnley was just an angry drunk and Bothwell a brute who didn’t care for Mary at all (a lack of feeling that was reciprocated). But with all these costumes they needed to find some romance somewhere.
*. Other historical figures tend to be cartoons, like John Knox who only shows up to spit “Papist whore!” at Mary. Trevor Howard as Cecil is the lone bright spot as the sort of intriguer we recognize from our own courts. I like Jackson, who was also playing Elizabeth in the miniseries Elizabeth R at the same time. I wonder if they plucked her forehead to make it look that strange. Kael thought her performance had “a sort of camp humor,” as “She looks like a ragpicker hag dressed by Klimt.” That’s bitchy, but I don’t think it’s quite right. Jackson is mannish and modern, but not incongruous.

*. Redgrave is fine. Apparently Jane Fonda (!) and Sophia Loren (?!) were both considered ahead of her for the part (indeed, Redgrave was going to play Elizabeth). Maybe Fonda or Loren could have turned this into the trashy soaper that you feel that it wants to be. Redgrave is a bit gray, which is why the movie keeps dragging us back to Elizabeth’s court.
*. John Barry contributes a jaunty score. The costumes are nice and some of the photography nicely done. You almost seem at times to be looking at a period painting. But it’s all a bit dull. There’s lots of expository dialogue explaining the political machinations but few dramatic highlights, despite all of the potential in the material. In fact, part of the problem was that there may have been too much material. I could imagine a decent biopic being made just based on Mary’s early years and time at the French court, and another dealing with her marriage to Darnley, and another covering her time in custody (the last nineteen years of her life). Few lives have the kind of consistency, or uneventfulness, to be boiled down to a two-hour drama. What we end up with here isn’t good history, or a very insightful biopic, but just horses and lace collars and stuff.

Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

*. Well, it’s for those who know what they like. Those who couldn’t get enough of Oscar-bait costume dramas like Becket (1964), A Man for All Seasons (1966), and The Lion in Winter (1968). And I don’t mean snobs. No, this is trash. But it’s trash with great actors delivering high drama in ringing lines full of booming passion and unsubtle wit.
*. You know the stuff I’m talking about. Just listen to what this movie sounds like (and note that the play it’s based on, by Maxwell Anderson, was partially written in blank verse, which the screenwriters had to adapt). Here’s Henry (Richard Burton), who has most of the good lines. “When I pray, God listens!” he bellows. When speaking the language of love he can be earthy with his rough wooing (“I think of nothing but you. Of you and me playing dog and bitch, of you and me playing horse and mare. Of you and me in every way. I want to fill you up night after night. I want to fill you up with sons!”) and grandiloquent (“I will marry Anne if it breaks the Earth in two like an apple and flings the two halves into the void!”)
*. Whew! And Anne (Geneviève Bujold) is no shrinking violet when it comes to emoting for the ages either. “Henry! I do love you! Henry, I love you. I love you with all my heart. I love you. Take me. Take me now. I want to be yours only!” Or here she is making a highly improbable prophecy of her daughter’s future greatness: “Elizabeth shall reign after you! Yes, Elizabeth, child of Anne the whore and Henry the bloodstained lecher, shall be queen! . . . And think of this Henry: Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours. She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built. Yes, My Elizabeth shall be queen, and my blood will have been well spent.”
*. You see what I mean by trash. Throw in some sideline banter and everything is set (“Thomas, this is a man’s world. The seat of power does not lie between a woman’s legs,” are some famous last words from Wolsey). It is, in short, the great Tudor soap opera, what the historian Antonia Fraser, in an essay on this film, called “The Taming of the Shrew meets Gone With the Wind.”

*. As I say, you know if this is your thing. I’ll confess I was laughing throughout the opening scene, what with Burton’s heavy overacting on being told that Anne has been found guilty and faces execution. Everything is done more by the book than with any imagination or creativity, but then it’s a movie produced in a style that is no longer fully accessible today. The acting, direction, and writing are all from another age entirely, closer perhaps to the Renaissance than our own time. We have our own versions of the Tudor story, from biopics of Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots to the series Wolf Hall, but they’re done in an entirely different manner.
*. It was an old play, over twenty years old in 1969, but apparently they hadn’t been able to produce it because it dealt with matters of adultery, illegitimacy, and (clearly fictional) incest and they thought this would get them in trouble with the Code (which was only abandoned around this time). At least that’s what I hear. But I find it hard to credit. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had been staged in 1962, with the film version coming out in 1966. True, that film had been a scandal, but still it was a lot wilder than this when it comes to discussions of adultery and illegitimacy.
*. And yet Anne of the Thousand Days does still work, up to a point. After chuckling through that opening scene I entered into the spirit of the thing. Heaven knows I’m familiar enough with the story and they make it more than easy enough to follow here. The thing is, the Tudors really were one of history’s great real-life soap operas and they never go out of style.

*. Directed by Charles Jarrott, who would follow it up with Mary Queen of Scots right away. Pauline Kael judged he had no sense of style and that he was only “a traffic manager.” I don’t think that’s unfair. He would go on to do the musical Lost Horizon (1973) and, I was surprised to discover, 1981’s Condorman. How bizarre.
*. Burton, as I’ve said, just cruises in full Burton mode here, which is fun for being so awful. Bujold is actually very good in a ridiculous part. Penelope Huston thought Anthony Quale looked “like a querulous crayfish” which is witty and apt. John Colicos plays the scheming Cromwell very nicely, more oily and less sympathetic than the Mantel version. Irene Papas has a memorable turn as Katherine. Apparently Elizabeth Taylor, married to Burton at the time, wanted to play Anne and was concerned Dick might have been fooling around on set. She was too old (remember Virginia Woolf had been a few years previous to this), but I think she might have been fun as Katherine. Why not? With material this trashy, just go for it.
*. Is this a great movie? No. I don’t even think it’s a great Tudor vehicle. But then I can’t watch any of these movies without thinking of SCTV’s “The Man Who Would Be King of the Popes.” A great parody, but from a distance of fifty years we can get nearly the same number of laughs out of the original. As history this paints with a pretty broad brush that misses a lot, but as entertainment it’s fun and doesn’t feel too bulky even at two-and-a-half hours. I can understand if it’s not your thing, but I felt my time if not my blood was well spent.

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

*. A biopic, based on a hit play, on the fall of Thomas More (Sir or Saint), but I want to start with Richard Rich. The twentieth-century historian Hugh-Trevor Roper once said of Rich that he was a man “of whom nobody has ever spoken a good word.” Can I be the first?
*. The real Richard Rich, in so far as we can tell, appears to have been a bad piece of work. But in Robert Bolt’s play, of which this film is a pretty faithful adaptation, he’s something even worse. As played by John Hurt he’s not just treacherous but a wimp and a fool. He’s also stuck dramatically perjuring himself, which is something he may not have been guilty of, and all for what? For Wales! Then to have his name adopted by one of the most revolting comic-book characters of all time. This is a harsh fate, even if his dying peacefully in bed is the ironic coda the film leaves us with.
*. I don’t know how much the real Rich deserves all this. As a character in A Man for All Seasons, however, I felt quite sympathetic toward him. He’s just a guy reduced to begging for a job and he gets openly mocked by a sanctimonious prig (that would be More) for being a scheming climber. Which he actually isn’t at that point — he still wants to do the right thing. Do we despise climbers that much? We shouldn’t. Rich is playing a dirty game, but so is everyone else. A court is a disgusting place, and I use the present tense because they are very much still with us. Think of the circle of flatterers who surround a powerful political figure, or the entourage or posse of a celebrity. So don’t hate the player, hate the game. Or, if you’re like me, hate both equally.
*. I called More a sanctimonious prig, which tells you what I think of him. Look, Paul Scofield is wonderful. But Pauline Kael put her finger on the problem: “The weakness is that though Bolt’s dialogue is crisp, lucid, and well-spoken, his presentation of More’s martyrdom is so one-sided we don’t even get to understand that side. More is the only man of honor in the movie, and he’s got all the good lines; he’s the kind of hero we read about in biographies of great men written for 12-year-olds, and Scofield is so refined, so controlled, so dignified, so obviously ‘subtle’ he’s like a man of conscience in a school play.”
*. As for how much such a character reflects the real Thomas More, my sense is very little. As I’ve said, anyone attached to a court is tainted by it. Was More a defender of freedom of conscience? Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall had a very different take, on both More and Cromwell. And here’s Joanne Paul writing in History Today: “The actual More’s entire intellectual enterprise was aimed at opposing the concept of individual conscience, which he took to be a sign of pride. To advance one’s own ideas against the Church, the community of Christian believers both alive and dead, threatened to rip Christendom apart. God spoke through consensus and this led to unity in the Church. For the historical More, what matters is not that he believes something, but that the Church does.
*. Fred Zinneman’s direction, which he won an Oscar for, is, to my eye, indistinguishable from that of anyone tasked with one of these historical costume dramas. David Thomson: “He had all the disposable qualities: diligence instead of imagination; more care than instinct; solemnity but no wit.” He did make one great movie though, about another morally upright man in a terrible jam, and I thought the “disposable qualities” Thomson mentions worked well in The Day of the Jackal. Isn’t the Jackal a diligent, careful, and solemn workman too?
*. It’s a great cast, but aside from Scofield and Hurt I found them all disappointing. Orson Welles looks like a wheezing fat tomato in his clerical robes. Leo McKern is an evil Rumpole as Thomas Cromwell. Robert Shaw, one of my favourite actors, has little to do as Henry VIII. It’s a role with no depth. Nigel Davenport is given more lines, but nothing more to say. Vanessa Redgrave is Anne Boleyn for a few seconds of screen time. She’d be back in a similar vehicle as Mary, Queen of Scots.
*. I think I first saw this film when I was twelve years old. Meaning, by Kael’s calculation, I was the perfect age for it. This may be why it’s always stuck with me. Today it doesn’t seem like much of anything at all. I think the only one of these royal romps I still really enjoy is The Lion in Winter. But I think this is good for kids, and it does harken back nostalgically today to a time when such moral lessons were taken seriously. We’ve come a long way, living in Richard Rich’s world.

Anonymous (2011)

*. There are two obvious places to get started here. The first, and it’s something that took me by surprise, is that this is indeed a Roland Emmerich film. Yes, the guy who brought you Universal Soldier, Independence Day, Godzilla, and 2012 was going highbrow here. Sort of.
*. This brings me to the second point, which is that this is an action flick cleverly disguised as a costume drama relating to the career of William Shakespeare. The twist being that Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare. The plays attributed to Shakespeare were, in his version, written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
*. There’s long been a cottage industry in making the argument that Shakespeare’s plays were written by somebody else, and Oxford is probably the leading alternative candidate. I don’t think this is at all likely, and scarcely even possible when you think about it, but it amuses some people to imagine such an alternate history.
*. Does Emmerich believe such a theory? Or screenwriter John Orloff? I don’t know. They talk as if they do on their DVD commentary track (Orloff, for example, doesn’t think Shakespeare could have set so many of his plays in Italy if he’d never been to Italy himself), but Anonymous doesn’t present any kind of scholarly case or argument for Oxford and both Emmerich and Orloff stress that they were taking all kind of liberties with the historical record in order to make things more dramatic anyway. I mean, Oxford and Elizabeth don’t just have a love child in the form of the Earl of Southampton, we also discover that Oxford is Elizabeth’s son! Gadzooks!
*. I don’t think historical accuracy makes any difference to whether or not this is a good movie though. JFK is a great movie, even if its spider-web of theories for how Kennedy was killed are crazy. And bringing up Oliver Stone isn’t inappropriate here, as Anonymous has a similarly fractured narrative, jumping about in a way that takes an already complicated plot and makes it even harder to follow. Was confusion part of the plan? Orloff thought it “very risky” and I think he’s right. Even going in knowing the basics of what was happening I was getting lost at times.

*. But despite the hash it makes of history and its scrambled storytelling I was pleasantly surprised by Anonymous. It’s quite an enjoyable movie, helped along by some good effects (most of it was shot in a studio in front of a green screen) and very good performances informed by interesting interpretations of the characters. Rhys Ifans is a world-weary Oxford, David Thewlis (barely recognizable under heavy make-up) is a William Cecil not to be trifled with, and Vanessa Redgrave is the old Elizabeth, by turns domineering and dotty (Redgrave’s daughter Joely Richardson plays the young Elizabeth as more of an bright and frisky sex kitten).

*. Shakespeare is played by Rafe Spall and he’s presented not so much as the lowly “man from Stratford” as an illiterate fool who becomes an improbable rock star, even bodysurfing through the pit at the Globe. The part of Fool was, in turn, meant as a way of making this into a Shakespearean movie about Shakespeare. Apparently the incest angle was meant to have the same purpose, though I don’t recall incest being much of a theme in Shakespeare.
*. It’s a crazy story, but zips along with the help of lots of action scenes. Critics joked that Emmerich was going to blow the Globe Theatre up but in the end he settles for burning it down. There are sword fights and sweaty couplings and even Essex’s rebellion being stamped out by a whiff of grapeshot on London Bridge. And the script is pretty clever in places. More in the Hollywood manner than the Stoppardian wit of Shakespeare in Love, but I got a smile out of several scenes.
*. It’s an American take on Shakespeare in another, deeper way as well. In the arguments over the authorship question that helped drum up publicity when it was released Emmerich attacked the “arrogance of the literary establishment” in defending Shakespeare. He even singled out James Shapiro, an academic whose book on the subject, Contested Will, I highly recommend. In this raging against an elite establishment and the putting forth of alternative facts there is something that places Anonymous on a continuum running from JFK to QAnon. It’s the paranoid style in American history, which in 2011 was still a few years away from its full flowering.
*. Emmerich self-financed the production, at least to some extent, and it ended up bombing. That’s too bad. It was well received by critics and for my money it’s one of his best movies, if not the best. But it makes quite a lot of demands on the audience’s attention, and I’m not sure it was an audience all that interested in Shakespeare in the first place. One imagines a Venn diagram showing the audiences for Shakespeare and Emmerich overlapping very little. But you can’t say Emmerich didn’t try to make a connection.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

*. The title was the result of a clash of egos between two of Warner Bros. biggest stars. The source play by Maxwell Anderson was Elizabeth the Queen. Errol Flynn, however, demanded that his character be acknowledged. Bette Davis then objected to the studio’s compromise, The Knight and the Lady, because it gave Flynn precedence in what she felt, correctly, was “a woman’s story.”
*. All of this is juicy stuff for film historians or anyone interested in tales of old Hollywood. What I found puzzling, given Flynn’s objections, is why he even wanted to be in this picture, playing this character. Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex was a fool and his life ended in a bathetic attempt at a coup. On top of that, the romance here was a decidedly odd sort, as Essex was a pretty toy-boy and Elizabeth a toothless horror held together by corsets and face paint. In real life Flynn and Davis were nearly the same age, but the historical Elizabeth was more than thirty years older than Essex. They were never lovers. The “romance,” in other words, was just another chapter in the Tudor myth.
*. Well, the movies have always loved the Tudor myth. Given a choice between filming the fact or the legend, they’ll go with the legend. Hence The Private Life of Henry VIII and, closer to our own time, Shekhar Kapur’s double-barreled Elizabeth biopics (Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age). But the thing is, in this case wouldn’t the actual historical story have been more interesting? Maybe not in 1939, but today? I think it would. I mean, even Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous (2011) was more historical than this, at least in some ways.
*. One has to wince at the palpable dishonesty in the romantic coupling. Davis and Flynn disliked one another pretty intensely, with bad blood spilling over from The Sisters, a movie they had played together in a couple of years earlier. Davis had wanted Olivier to play Essex but the studio wanted a bigger name.
*. To say that the two have no chemistry would be an understatement. Flynn in particular seems to almost recoil within their passionate embraces. Even their acting styles are awkwardly juxtaposed, with Davis creating an affected Elizabeth all tremulous voice and fidgety hands, with a nodding head suggesting senility. Thrown in a scalp shaved back two inches off her forehead and eyebrows plucked and you’re not far from the grotesqueness of her turn in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

*. Flynn, playing opposite, looks as though he isn’t even trying. Which in itself might have been interesting, as Davis is seen doing all the work while he just has to strut about in tights looking good. This, in turn, would have fit with a more realistic interpretation of the historical events being dramatized, with the foolish Essex trying to play the queen and ending up getting burned. But as it is I think we’re meant to take seriously the idea that the two are in love, with poor Penelope (Olivia de Havilland) left to pine in the wings (actually, Lady Penelope Gray was Essex’s sister).
*. So instead of really digging into this weird anti-romance we’re stuck with “a woman’s story,” full of clenches and protestations of love that can never be consummated. The dialogue is hard to take, at least at this distance. Saith the earl: “If things had been different, you simply a woman, not a queen, and I a man, with no crown between us, we could have searched heaven and earth for two perfect lovers and ended the search with ourselves.” A warning: It’s all like that.
*. Directed without much imagination by Michael Curtiz. Shot in Technicolor with lots of cardboard sets and heavy costumes (literally heavy; apparently some of Davis’s dresses weighed 60 pounds). Plenty of veteran hands in the background: Donald Crisp as Francis Bacon, Alan Hale, Sr. (the Skipper’s dad) as the Earl of Tyrone, Henry Daniell as Sir Rober Cecil (the snake who would survive), and Vincent Price just introducing himself as Raleigh in pink tights. I doubt Clive Owen was taking notes. A great score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
*. I’m not sure what people thought of Davis’s performance at the time. Today it’s too much, especially piled on top of such a melodramatic script, which even gives her a mirror-smashing scene to go full diva in. I’d call it camp, but when you set it alongside something like Elizabeth: The Golden Age it doesn’t seem that out of place, making me think that maybe camp was somehow of the essence of the Tudor myth. And further wonder why the silliest parts of that myth have been so long lived. I understand the perennial appeal of the Tudors, but the way we see them really should have evolved more than it has.