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Movie Reviews: Palace Intrigue

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Last winter, in service to trying to work methodically through my miles-long Netflix list, I decided to start pursuing specific themes, and exhaust all of the movies of a particular genre or subgenre, and spend less time hemming and hawing over what should come next.  So this week I finally finished what had become an eight-month commitment (I had other things going on, you know) to palace intrigue films.  I think the one to start me on this kick was The Lion in Winter–there was so much scheming and plotting and bargaining and…intrigue!  I love that stuff.

Over the course of seeing all these, I definitely hit upon some recurring themes, plots and motifs.  Some individual reviews will follow, but here are some of my overall impressions of the palace intrigue movie.

  • Women, if you can’t give birth to a male child, your life is over, literally.  When Anne Boleyn (in Anne of the Thousand Days) has a boy who is stillborn, she screams bloody murder.  Yeah, because she knows she’s totally getting killed.  I have seen, in person, the plaque that marks the spot where her head hit the ground after they cut it off.  It works both ways, though–having boys pays off handsomely.  In The Duchess, after Georgiana finally gives birth to the boy the duke wanted, he literally hands her a check.  Like a company bonus, like, “Here’s for a job well done, madam.”
  • “King’s mistress” is a totally legitimate career track.  When an envoy from the palace approaches a humble lord and offers to set up the whole family with a generous salary in exchange for the king’s unfettered access to the lord’s buxom daughter, this is cause for great celebration.
  • Monarchs are pivotal figures in the military maneuvers of their own armies.  Apparently no king in history has ever said, “Uh, I’m the king so I don’t have to go out there.  Call me when we own Spain.”
  • Men in wigs cannot be trusted.  They are planning a rebellion on the sly.  Also do not trust maternal figures.  They will sell out their daughters or nieces for a new hat.  Hell, for an old one.
  • Actors who are, in real life, grandstanding drunks, make by far the best onscreen kings.  See: Richard Burton in Anne of the Thousand Days, Robert Shaw in A Man for All Seasons, Peter O’Toole in Becket and The Lion in Winter.  (Somewhere right now Mel Gibson is pitching a project where he plays Louis XIV.)
  • All royal families are totally dysfunctional.  the only happy royal marriage ever was that of Victoria and Albert.  They were happier than any couple in the world has ever been, or will ever be.  Their happiness is legendary, the stuff of fairy tales.

The Young Victoria (2009)

Mrs. Brown (1997)

Speaking of Victoria, here she is both young and old.  The Young Victoria (obviously) portrays the queen’s first couple years on the throne and the beginning of her marriage to Albert.  Mrs. Brown jumps twenty to thirty years ahead to Victoria’s intense widowhood.  What’s interesting is that both movies are thematically similar, with Victoria falling under the sway of a powerful male figure, upsetting all the other powerful male figures who wish they had been placed in that position.

Both are excellent though Mrs. Brown has the slight edge.  I don’t think Emily Blunt can yet touch Judi Dench, and, accordingly, Judi’s movie is better than Emily’s.  Although The Young Victoria had some nice details (example: the teenage Victoria, as the only living heir to the crown, is considered such an endangered species that she is not allowed to go up or down stairs except on the arm of a servant.  No unexpected broken necks will be dissolving this royal line!) there were some snoozy ones, too.  (Wow, using a chess game as a thematic stand-in for the political maneuvering.  That is some paint-by-numbers filmmaking right there.)  Her courtship with Albert was well-done, also, making the first year of a royal marriage look pretty much exactly like the first year of a civilian one.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Brown really deconstructs grief, and how, when it affects the queen, it affects all of the hundreds of people who share the palace with her.  Dench makes a great queen (she was also Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, remember?) because she’s got such a huge presence, but she’s got a real vulnerability here, too, which is a great contradiction.  It’s very much assisted by the many, many great shots of Queen Victoria striding into rooms flanked by her ladies-in-waiting, who look like pillars on either side of her tiny, tiny five-foot-one frame.  I had never realized Judi Dench was so short until I saw her in this movie.

The Queen (2006)

The story is good–it fictionalizes the reaction of sitting queen Elizabeth II upon the death of her ex-daughter-in-law Diana, and it makes the personal political, and it’s one of the only palace intrigue films from the modern era, in which the MEDIA DEAR GOD THE MEDIA plays a role.  So that’s all good.  The symbolism of the killing of the hunted stag is kind of on-the-nose, but then the Scottish scenery is beautiful so who cares.

What’s really amazing to me about this movie is how much Helen Mirren is transformed in the Elizabeth role–it goes beyond costume and makeup.  An actress who usually looks like this (Holy CATS Helen Mirren!) has to change a lot about her physicality to look like this.

I wish I could find a picture of the queen frumping around in the woods with the dogs–she looks so incredibly squat and stout and mannish.  Which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with a woman being any of those things, or, for that matter, enjoying a nice walk in the woods with six dozen corgis.  But knowing how Mirren really looks, it’s quite a transformation.  That’s a part of acting which doesn’t get the attention it should–the manner of seeming to literally inhabit a body other than your own.  I remember reading or hearing somewhere once that Helen Mirren said it was the look of the queen which really helped her to get into the mindset of the queen–being a person who thinks it is absolutely necessary to look that way tells you a lot about the queen’s sense of dignity and tradition above all else.

Anyway, good flick; I caught in on AMC on a weekend.  You can, too.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Valmont (1989)

I watched these two back to back because–as it happens–they are the same story, both them closely adapted from a French novel.  The change in title for the second movie (to Valmont) sort of suggests a change in point of view, a reframing of the story, although, to my recollection, that really didn’t happen.  Both movies were very much the same story with different actors, different sets, different tones.

What is interesting though, of course, is seeing what the movies did differently from each other.  Colin Firth (as Valmont, in Valmont) doesn’t have the menace of the other Valmont, John Malkovich.  (Few do, really.)  Still, Firth kind of works in the role when he seduces Cecile, the Innocent Girl Who is Going to Get Totally Screwed Over By Everyone Both Figuratively and Literally, which he does by being sort of silly and big brotherly and getting her guard down.  This interpretation is helped along by the fact that the movie cast an actual child in the role of Cecile–actual (at the time) 15-year-old Fairuza Balk–and let her look even younger.  To hear the characters casually bargaining for her virginity seems pretty cruel.  (Which, of course, it’s supposed to.)  To compare, Dangerous Liaisons gave us Uma Thurman, who, granted, can do empty-headed sweetness very well, but who still looked undoubtedly adult.  (The internet tells me she was only 18, but I’m sure Uma herself was a pretty worldly 18.)

Valmont seemed to want to make Marquise de Merteuil (Annette Bening there) more of a sympathetic character than she was in Liaisons (when she was Glenn Close).  She’s a widow but coos lovingly to her man-of-the-moment; when she strikes out at him it’s only in the wake of his major betrayal (by becoming engaged to her young cousin behind her back).  Also, she’s constantly prancing around in silk gowns of cotton-candy pink.  I prefer Glenn Close as a villainess, myself.  She is arguably the premier lady villain of her generation–still doin’ it regular on Damages, too–and I think Liaisons ultimately came out on top for that reason.  It was darker, fiercer.  The best example is the throwdown scene where Merteuil reneges on her side of the bet with Valmont.  All of Annette Bening’s lovely pouting in the first half of the movie left no room for her to show righteous rage later, especially when played from a bathtub.  Meanwhile, Glenn Close got a full-on close up in the firelight, looking like the devil herself.  So much cooler.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Two movies about Elizabeth I.  The ’39 version, with Bette Davis, is good story-wise, but kind of over-costumed.  I watched the Technicolor version (well, that’s the one TCM aired) and one thing I dislike intensely about period dramas from that era is that they can be SO COLORFUL.  All the like, castle pages are prancing around in bright yellows and blues and reds and the palace interiors are always so white and airy.

Of course, the palace intrigue movies of today are dark and dismal, filmed in real castles and so drenched in shadows that you can barely tell what’s going on from one moment to the next.  I have to say that I prefer that.

Elizabeth and Essex is about Elizabeth as she tries to choose between her lover Essex and her country–to reconcile her identity as a woman and the demands of being a monarch.  Pretty much the same territory as Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998), which came out when I was in high school and a total freak for anything Elizabethan.  There’s a compelling power struggle story there, which is missing from its sequel, The Golden Age.  Most of its narrative drama is spun out of Elizabeth and one of her ladies-in-waiting fighting over a boy.  It’s set in the action-packed era of the Spanish Armada and viewers are apparently supposed to be satisfied with, “Walter Raleigh is dreeeaaaaaaamy.”

The subplot, where Elizabeth’s cousin Mary of Scotland is plotting Elizabeth’s assassination, is great, though.  Mary is played by the always interesting and somewhat weird Samantha Morton as an infuriating, “Kill me if you think you have to, whatever, I’ll be over here writing letters,” kind of figure.  Like Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski!  “I’m calmer than you are.”  I have more affection for the movie just based on that comparison.

The Duchess (2008)

This one was weird.  The name of the duchess played by Keira Knightley was Georgiana, but everybody called her “G.”  They really did.  “What do you think of that, G?”  It felt anachronistic and totally out of place.

The story itself was pretty basic.  Kind of a half-assed feminist thing, where Knightley prances around in giant wigs all, “If men will cheat on me, than I shall cheat on men!  Hear me roar.”  Betrayed betrayed betrayed, drunk, baby girl, baby girl, husband cheats!, Georgiana cheats!, baby boy.  The duke shoots a turkey. I don’t know, this was the very last one I watched, and maybe I was a little burned out by that time.

The best palace intrigue movies–officially and without question–are the ones from the 60s.

Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

Becket (1964)

The Lion in Winter (1968)

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

I watched most of these a while ago, so I can’t do them justice with reviews.  I’ll put them on the back burner, in fact, and talk about them some more when I watch them again, because I loved them all.  They’re less flashy than the new ones (which are mostly around to get Oscars for costuming anyway, right?) and they’re mostly adapted from stage plays, so the plots are complex and difficult, and there are great scenes where characters just stand and yell at each other for ten, twenty minutes, building each other up and tearing each other down with their words.  Mostly arguing about whether there have been any boy babies born lately, but also a little bit about whether the king or God reigns supreme.

These movies are dark and tragic and philosophical and whether or not they have anything to do with actual historical fact I don’t know, but as far as I am concerned, they are the Real Deal.  Several of them are on Netflix Instant, so look ’em up.

  1. Stella M.
    August 13, 2010 at 7:35 am

    Hi Erin,
    I love your blog!
    John Malkovich-Valmont simply rocks. Malkovich plus Glenn Close are really the scariest people of all time.
    If you are interested in royal-themed films, when you have time check out “Marie Antoniette” (2006). I think it’s great! (Well, I might be biased because I’m a huge Sofia Coppola fan, but still…)
    Have a great week-end!

  2. August 13, 2010 at 9:27 am

    Thanks for the compliment! I am also a Sofia Coppola fan, so I saw Marie Antoinette when it came out, and I didn’t rewatch it during the period of palace intrigue. I remember liking it, but thinking that Kirsten Dunst was kind of overmatched. Jason Schwartzman was great, though, and I still listen to the soundtrack ALL THE TIME.

    • Stella M.
      August 14, 2010 at 6:46 am

      Yes, well, I’m not a big fan of Kirsten Dunst either. Anyway, I did like her as M. Antoniette. I would have also loved to see Scarlett Johansson in that role, though. Jason Schwartzman was first-rate and so was the soundtrack. The end, the royal family fleeing from Versailles, is so sad.

      I usually love Sofia Coppola’s films because they’re so accurate. I feel like even the slightest detail has been taken care of.
      The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I guess.

      I’ll be reading your blog! Bye-bye… ciao!

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