Category Archives: Historical Film/TV

Screening History: "The Spanish Princess" (Season 1)

Having really enjoyed both The White Queen and The White Princess on Starz, I naturally decided to dive right into The Spanish Princess, which picks up the story several years later. By this point, Henry and Lizzy have settled quite well into their lives as king and queen of England. They now have four children that have lived to adulthood, and at last it is time to find a bride for elder, Arthur. Enter Katherine of Aragon, a young woman of indomitable will and sweeping passions. Katherine, however, will find all of her considerable charm, strength, and political skills challenged by the nature of the Tudor court.

From the moment that she appears on screen, Charlotte hope shines as Katherine of Aragon. She somehow manages to capture both Katherine’s steely self-control and vulnerability, her heart and her sharp intellect, and that’s quite an accomplishment. I’ve always thought that there’s been far too little focus on Katherine’s youth in popular culture, and The Spanish Princess really allows us to see how this young woman would grow into a queen who would hold her own against all who came against her.

Much as I liked Hope as Katherine, she’s a little outshone by two other members of the cast. The first, of course, is the divine Harriet Walter as Lady Margaret Beaufort. She’s a little less dour and bitter than Michelle Fairley’s iteration of the character, but she seems to be a bit shrewder in terms of her political abilities. She’s laser-focused on ensuring that her dynasty continues, even if that means destroying Catherine. Walter brings all of her considerable talent to bear in the role, and her presence helps to elevate some of the clunkier writing (it remains a little unclear why she bears Katherine such irrepressible hatred). Walter truly shines in the final episode of the season, as she has to confront the sudden death of her beloved son, the collapse of her own power, and the legacy of her own actions that brought her family to the throne. Walter fully captures the mix of strength and vulnerability that has always been key to Margaret’s character in all three of her iterations. As the only character that has had a substantial presence in all three series, it was very satisfying to see it brought to such a stunning conclusion.

In my opinion, the real star of this show is Lina, played by Stephanie Levi-John. Her character is fascinating for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that we finally get to see a woman of color playing a prominent role in a costume drama set in the 16th Century (something that I’m sure will cause all of the racist fans of the genre to lose their minds). More than that, though, Lina’s storyline allows us a glimpse into the lives and mentalities of a group of people who have been largely ignored in costume dramas set in this period: i.e., the first generation of those who were forcibly converted by Catholic monarchs of Spain. In The Spanish Princess, it is precisely this question of faith that is one of the central crises that Lina must negotiate, since her beloved Oviedo still adheres to Islam. Her conflict, between her love of Oviedo and her devotion to Katherine, is one of the most moving in the entire season.

As with the previous two series, however, I found some of the writing infuriatingly lazy. For example, I’m not sure I buy the idea that Maggie Pole was in on the conspiracies against the Tudors rather silly (though Laura Carmichael is spot-on casting for this character). Unfortunately, some of this sloppiness is due to the nature of the source material. Philippa Gregory is a little notorious for her tendency to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction in her work, while insisting that she isn’t doing so, and the series carries on with that.

To some degree, The Spanish Princess is hamstrung by its own story. It’s a little difficult to feel much sense of narrative urgency or mystery about Katherine’s narrative, since we already know how it ends up. We all know that Katherine ended up being Henry’s first wife, if only because his attempt to get that marriage annulled would be such an earth-shattering historical event. The cast, however, deserves universal praise for doing their best to keep things moving forward and engaging.

Ultimately, The Spanish Princess is about the ongoing conflict between the past and the future in the Tudor court. Margaret Beaufort is, of course, the most visible icon of the past and its iron hold on the present, while Henry and Katherine are the promise and the peril of what’s to come. Even at this early stage, however, we can see the ways that Henry’s willfulness and disregard for how things are done are setting him on the road that will lead to his later despotism (and it’s worth pointing out that Ruairi O’Connor does an excellent job of bringing a young Henry to life. His is certainly one of the better interpretations of the monarch in his youth). Likewise, Katherine’s choices–particularly her claim to be a virgin–will come to have consequences that are truly historic in their impact.

All in all, I was mostly pleased with this outing into Renaissance England. Though some of the plot points felt rather contrived–and not particularly effectively, at that–overall I thought that the series did justice to Katherine of Aragon’s plight as she sought to navigate the vicious and venomous court. I’d ultimately place it somewhere between The White Queen and The White Princess. It has significantly better production values and acting than the former, but the writing and acting aren’t quite as strong as the latter.

I’m very excited about the fact that there is now a second season on the way, and I’m genuinely curious to see how far they take it. Given my endless fascination with the Tudors and with costume drama, I’m willing to go along for the ride.

Screening History: "The White Princess" (2017)

Warning: Some spoilers for the series follow.

When I first watched The White Princess (which I, unfortunately, didn’t finish the first time around), I was a little underwhelmed by Jodie Comer’s performance. However, having seen her in Killing Eve (where she is nothing short of brilliant), I thought I’d see if the series merited another try.

I wasn’t disappointed.

This miniseries focuses on Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter Lizzie who, despite her love for the dead Yorkist king Richard III, must instead marry the man who defeated him on the battlefield at Bosworth. As the series continues, she finds herself in two directions, as she must decide whether she will throw in her lot with her husband and their growing family or whether she will side instead with her mother and the remaining Yorkist affinity. In the end, she must make a terrible decision that truly shatters her heart, even as it finally means that she and her family can have peace.

One of the first things to note is that it’s an almost entirely different cast than its predecessor. With one exception–as the Duchess Cecily–there are no repeats from The White Princess. At first this is a little distracting, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made that they would go with older people. In fact, one of the drawbacks of The White Queen was that, as the years passed within the narrative, it got less and less believable to see these characters not at all looking their diegetic ages.

Further, The White Princess definitely benefits from having an older cast. Michelle Fairley’s Margaret Beaufot strides through her scenes with a steely, austere grace very different than that she brought to the role of Catelyn Stark in Game of Thrones. Essie Davis is similarly great as an aging Elizabeth Woodville, a woman who remains so committed to her loyalty to the York cause that she’s willing to put her own daughter’s life at risk for it. And, upon rewatch, I am amazed at how well Comer does with this role, amply showing Elizabeth’s transformation from naïve young woman to ruthless politician.

Though some might dismiss The White Princess as something of an epilogue to the story recounted in The White Queen, but that sells the story far too short. For one thing, the series manages to avoid the shortcomings of the book, which basically amounted to Elizabeth striding around her various palaces while Henry goes off and fights against the risings and usurpers. Here, we get multiple points of view, ranging from Elizabeth’s scheming from her prison at Bermondsey, the Duchess Margaret of Burgundy’s lending her support to various potential usurpers, or Lizzie’s own struggles to reconcile the feuding factions of her family. The series is well-written enough, and the acting strong enough, that it helps to support some of the rather questionable historical choices (more on that in a moment).

If that earlier series was about two women fighting for each of their children to inherit the throne, this one is about what happens when the battle is done and a victor has emerged. How does one go about rebuilding a kingdom that has been in the midst of a civil war that has torn apart both the royal family and the land itself? For that matter, how do those who are supposed to be doing the crucial work do so when there are those who refuse to move on from the past? In this case, the success of the dynasty depends, not on the past and all of its recriminations, but on the ability of the new king and queen to bind up the wounds that separate them and, ultimately, to put their parents firmly in the background.

Chief among these are the two mothers. While it was easy to identify with Elizabeth Woodville in The White Queen, her scheming starts to wear very thin by about the midpoint of this series, precisely because it endangers her daughter and her grandson. Davis does a lot with the role, but it does get frustrating to watch Elizabeth try to strong-arm Lizzie into surrendering her throne to her brother. That being said, there is a genuine connection between Davis and Comer.

On the flip side of the coin, Margaret is still haunted by her ordering of the murder of the Princes in the Tower (an argument that the books make that I find incredibly implausible). This ultimately leads to her estrangement from Henry and yet, oddly enough, also leads her to grow closer–in spirit if not in fact–to Lizzie, who must also make terrible choices regarding the safety and well-being of her children.

All in all, The White Princess is significantly stronger than The White Queen. Because the performances are so much more uniform than in its predecessor, it’s significantly easier to feel more involved and invested in them, rather than growing annoyed with adolescents storming about and arguing with one another. There are moments of genuine pathos, such as when Teddy, Earl of Warwick is executed, and the chemistry between Henry (Jacob Collins-Levy, infinitely better than Max Irons at portraying royalty) and Elizabeth is genuine, and it’s easy to grow involved in their romance.

If I have a complaint about the series, it’s the same that I have with the book. I just find it strains credulity to think that Perkin Warbeck was actually the lost Prince Richard. I tend to believe that he was who he confessed to be, a son of a boatmaker in Tournai, and that the man who was executed at Tyburn was Perkin and not a changeling (in the series, he is swapped out and the real Richard is given a royal execution by sword while Lizzie watches). Even more incredibly, Margaret of Burgundy actually sets up shop in London to continue plotting against Henry. It strains credulity to think that a duchess a.) would put herself at risk this way and b.) would go so long undiscovered.

Those gripes aside, I truly did enjoy The White Princess, and I cannot wait to begin its successor The Spanish Princess. Stay tuned!

Screening History: "The White Queen" (2013)

When I first watched The White Queen way back in 2013, I’m afraid I wasn’t much of a fan. While I love costume dramas, there just seemed to be something missing from this one, which seemed oddly bloodless compared to Showtime’s The Tudors. However, having recently finished The Crown and feeling myself in need of some royal soap opera, I decided to turn back to it.

I’m glad I did.

The series definitely benefits from a re-watch. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a truly great series, either as a costume drama or as simply drama, it does its job well. It has characters that are easy to either care about or hate (Rebecca Ferguson and Amanda Hale are particularly fine). The story, while uneven, is compelling. And it has some gorgeous scenery and costumes to look at. The ingredients for a delicious costume drama are all there; they just don’t always hold together well.

The White Queen begins when Elizabeth Woodville (Rivers), daughter of a Lancastrian supporter, puts herself and her two sons in the pathway of the victorious Edward IV (Max Irons). After she meets him, the two find that they fall in love, marry, and ultimately raise a fine brood of children. Unfortunately, all of this unfolds against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses, which leads, inevitably, to violence, bloodshed, and heartbreak.

While the story begins with Elizabeth, her tale is also interwoven with two other powerful women with their own dynastic ambitions: Anne Neville, daughter of the Kingmaker Richard Neville, and Margaret Beaufort, a scion of the Lancastrians who, driven by what she believes to be God’s will, does everything in her power to ensure that her young son Henry Tudor ascends to the throne as the last viable Lancastrian heir.

There’s no question that The White Queen succeeds when it focuses almost exclusively on these female characters (which is fitting, since that is precisely why Gregory wrote the books in the way that she did). Rebecca Ferguson is captivating as Woodville, ably conveying both her iron will and her vulnerability and her passion. Amanda Hale is her opposite number, and she really brings out the religious zealot part of Margaret’s character. I was also pleasantly surprised how well Fay Marsay did as Anne Neville, bringing to the character a steely ruthlessness that one doesn’t always associated with this queen. Between the three of them, these three women make the show, and it’s worth watching just for them alone.

The men are an altogether more mixed back, particularly Max Irons. He’s pretty enough, but he just doesn’t have the weight or the charisma to play a king like Edward IV, and his shortcomings are all the more glaring when he’s shown with Ferguson. That being said, the actors portraying both George and Richard (David Oakes and Aneurian Barnard) deserve special mention as standing out. I was particularly impressed with Barnard’s rather sensitive portrayal of Richard, arguably the most vilified of any English king. And, of course, credit must be given to James Frain, who has truly established himself as uniquely able to bring to life villainous yet oddly compelling villains (he is also known for his portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in The Tudors and Franklin Mott in True Blood).

The writing and plot are at times quite uneven, and the series only really seems to find its footing after the halfway point. Part of this stems from the fact that Edward dies, and so the drama benefits from no longer being distracted by how bad Max Irons is. Strangely enough, I think that the series would have benefited from having two half seasons rather than a single season often. The time jumps seem very contrived for the most part, and since the characters aren’t seen to age. The bigger problem is that these time jumps also short-circuit character development, so that we don’t really get to see the most important characters changing over time.

The White Queen also suffers from a very limited budget. This is far more noticeable in the few battle scenes, which feel very paltry in comparison to the lushness of the interior scenes and the costumes. In fact, as I watched the series I had to wonder why they didn’t simply jettison them altogether, or at the least choose one to focus on. As it is, the only battlefield death that has even a modicum of emotional impact is Richard’s at Bosworth, though even that is rather undercut by the choppy editing. Nevertheless, there is something powerful about the image of Margaret standing triumphant on the battlefield with her son, her years of scheming and manipulating and bloodshed having finally born fruit.

All in all, The White Queen is a very serviceable costume drama. While it doesn’t quite reach what I feel to be the stellar quality of The Tudors (which it clearly takes for a model) nor the grittiness of Game of Thrones (with which it was clearly designed to compete), it still deserves praise for its attempt. Like Gregory’s novels, the series shows us the substantial role that women have in the making of history. While history books might be full of the great battles between men, with all of their blood and “glory” and “heroism,” in reality it is in the drawing rooms and bedchambers that the fates of nations are decided. In that sense, it’s actually rather a good thing that the series chose to forsake the conventions of the epic–with its grand vistas, its cluttered battlefields, its daring acts of bravery–to focus instead on the power of the domestic.

In the future, I plan to watch both The White Princess, which chronicles the courtship and reign of Elizabeth of York (Woodville’s daughter, played by the inimitable Judy Comer), as well as the Spanish Princess, about the youthful exploits of the woman who would go down in history as one of the two most famous of Henry VIII’s wives, Katherine of Aragon.

Screening History: "The Crown" (Season 3)

Anyone who knows me even passingly well knows that I have been in love with Netflix’s The Crown from the moment that it premiered. Part of this stems from my own avowed monarchical tendencies and my fascination with the institution, but another comes from the stars chosen to play the characters, the writing, and the sumptuous costume and set design. I’ve thus been waiting impatiently for the day when the third season would at last see the light of day and now, having finished the entire third season, I’m ready to share some of my thoughts about it.

To start with the most obvious: the aging up of the characters. There still seems to be a great deal of disagreement among the series’ fans whether this was a good move or not and whether it might not have been better to simply keep the cast and age them artificially. While it did take some getting used to, I found that as the series progressed I grew more and more used to Colman and company as the Royal Family, until it was hard for me to remember that there had been other people playing these characters. Colman is simply amazing as Elizabeth, a woman verging on middle age who gradually realizes just how much she has sacrificed for the Crown and the country, and the rest of the cast accomplishes something similar. I was particularly pleased with the casting of Josh O’Connor as Charles, who turns in one of the season’s breakout performances.

As fantastic as the central cast is, however, the guest stars are no less resplendent and captivating. While I’m not a huge fan of Edward III/David (given his Nazi sympathies), I have to admit that Derek Jacobi really manages to capture a sense of faded grandeur and exquisite tragedy. On the other end of the spectrum, Charles Dance as Louis Mountbatten threatens to carry off the whole season, since I can think of no one better to play that sort of man, a creature of a bygone world that remains determined to mold this one to his own designs.

Some critics have dinged this season for paying too much attention to the other characters in Elizabeth’s orbit, and there is truth to that argument. Charles at last starts to come into his own, and Philip (as was the case with previous seasons as well) has at least one episode where he’s the focal point. Both father and son have to contend with the fact that their masculinity is going to be perpetually called into question because neither of them is the queen. So long as she lives, they remain subsidiary. While each of them manages to make peace with this phenomenon, the series makes it clear that it isn’t an easy process, that each of them must make sacrifices–some of them quite heart-wrenching–for the good of the Crown.

But to me, that’s precisely the point. The series isn’t called “The Queen”; it’s called “The Crown.” This season, more than the two that preceded it, really explores the effects of that institution on the people who are forced to labor under its aegis. Though this takes its most burdensome toll on Elizabeth, there’s no question that it also has consequences for Philip, Charles and, of course, Margaret. I’ll admit I was a little dubious about casting Helena Bonham Carter, if only because her stardom (at least until before Colman’s Oscar) blazes so much more brightly than anyone else in the cast. However, it ends up being the perfect casting, as she too must confront the reality that it is her elder sister who will always occupy the throne while she, the dazzling personality, must play second fiddle. In the end, she has to shoulder the heavy burden of eternally being aware of her secondary status.

Though it might just be me, I also found that this season was even more emotionally fraught than the previous ones. Time and again, we see the emotional toll that life as a royal takes. There’s a scene near the very end, in which Elizabeth and Margaret are conversing after the latter’s failed suicide attempt. Each of them comes to realize how necessary they are to the other. For Elizabeth, Margaret is the sister that she loves dearly and without whom she cannot imagine living; for Margaret, Elizabeth is not just a sister, she’s the embodiment of the nation. As she reminds her elder sister, she must go on, even when the rest of them cannot. Given that Margaret would eventually predecease her sister, this commentary is both poignant and profound, a reminder of just how rich The Crown’s mythologizing of Elizabeth has been and continues to be.

The third season of The Crown is one of those seasons of television that seems to simply dazzle and sparkle, so well-polished is it. Throughout, Elizabeth emerges as a woman solemnly committed to her duties as a monarch, as a symbol in which her people can invest their emotional and patriotic energies. Say what you will about the institution, but if nothing else it does provide a measure of temporal and political stability even in times of tremendous change.

Speaking of which, there’s a central irony to The Crown that I personally find absolutely fascinating. A key tension has always been the extent to which Elizabeth can ever be truly known as a person, given how much of an iron grip she, and the Palace, have always maintained over her image. In casting stars such as Claire Foya and Colman, the series aims, I would argue, to demystify her a bit, to reveal the human behind the mask. However, in the very act of using stars–even ones as seemingly unglamourous as Colman–to portray these characters, the series actually remystifies them. What’s more, the series is also very self-conscious of the role of popular media, particularly television, and the ways in which they have shaped not only the way that the people understand the royals, but also how the royals understand their subjects, and themselves.

I truly enjoyed this season of The Crown. It feels as if the series has truly begun to mature. While it’s still unclear just how far they intend to extend the timeline–whether, for example, they plan on exploring some of the same territory as Morgan examined with his film The Queen–we still should feel very fortunate that we had four seasons of some of the best royal drama on television.

Screening History: “The King” (2019)

I’ve been really looking forward to watching the the new Netflix film The King. I’m a fan of Timothée Chalamet, and I thought that he’d make a good Henry V. I very much enjoyed the film which, while compressing several of Shakespeare’s Henry plays, still manages to hit most of the right notes.

As I was watching, I was struck by the ways in which the film straddles two very different registers. One is the expected one, the period drama, with its sumptuous clothes, its attention to plots and counterplots, the sweeping vistas. The other is the indy film, with its strangeness, the slightly off-kilter approach to plot, characterization, and dialogue that characterizes the indie film. Somehow, The King manages to weave all of these together into some sort of coherent whole. As I was watching, I was reminded strongly of The Favourite, which accomplished a similar feat of binding together the indie film aesthetic and the costume drama (though, on the whole, The Favourite is more disturbing than The King).

There’s a certain sequence in the film that stands out to me in this regard. Near the end of the film, the wily and cunning Gascoigne (played by the almost always strange Sean Harris) confesses that he misled the king in order to lead him to war with the French. When Henry demands that Gascoigne beg for his forgiveness, the old adviser does so, only to have Henry fatally stab him in the neck. The death is swift, brutal and, while not entirely unexpected, is nevertheless shocking in its banality. As Gascoigne lies twitching upon the floor, Henry leaves the chamber to confer with his new wife. It’s one of those moments that shocks you as a viewer, precisely because cinematic death is, as a rule, supposed to be surrounded with ceremony and buildup, to prepare yourself for the end of human life. Here, the film confronts us with the unpleasant that life, particularly in the Middle Ages, was in a constant state of precarity.

It must be said that a great deal of the film’s ultimate success comes down to Timothée Chalamet, who does an uncannily good job as one of history’s (and Shakespeare’s) most enigmatic characters. We’re never quite sure where we stand with Hal, who always seems to be putting on a performance: for himself, for his father, for the kingdom. It helps that Chalamet has a certain elfin beauty about him that goes together in a rather strange way with a core of iron, all of it masked by a sort of fey inscrutability.

Though Chalamet owns the film, the supporting cast turns in uniformly excellent performances. I’ve never been a huge fan of Joel Edgerton, but I give him a great deal of credit for his portrayal of John Falstaff (another of Shakespeare’s finest creations). So completely does Edgerton disappear into this character that there were times that I had trouble remembering that it was him. I was also struck by how different this Falstaff is from almost every interpretation that I’ve seen or heard of, in large part because he is so cunning and, it turns out, a keen military strategist. His death is understated, but nonetheless powerful, as we realize that Hal had a genuine fondness for this man who played such a key part in his youth.

There are a few strangely sour notes in the film. Robert Pattinson is a truly strange choice to play the Dauphin, all the more so because he challenges Hal to a duel that he ultimately doesn’t win. The film also feels a bit rushed, since we’re essentially covering the basic plot of not one but several very dense and layered plays. That’s an awful lot of material to cover in just one film, though The King does a passably good job at it.

All in all, I really quite enjoyed The King. While I have my doubts as to whether it will go down in history as one of the great adaptations of Shakespeare’s Henry plays, it does still manage to hold its own. If anything, I rather wish the film had been a bit longer, so that it could have explored more aspects of Hal’s character and the world that he inhabits. Still, it’s worth a watch, particularly for those who have an interest either in Shakespeare or the costume drama.

Screening History: “Outlaw King” (2018)

I’d been meaning to watch the Netflix film Outlaw King for some time now. As someone who has an abiding interest in the depiction of history in film and television, it seemed like it might be a worthwhile watch. While I did enjoy the film, what struck me the most was just how forgettable it was, hardly the sort of cinematic legacy that Robert the Bruce, one of Scotland’s most famous heroes, should inspire.

The film centers on the man Robert the Bruce–portrayed for better or worse by Chris Pine–one of the claimants to the Scottish throne. He repeatedly falls afoul of the English King Edward I and his son Edward, until he nearly loses his life and the throne he has fought for so diligently. Ultimately, however, he attains his goal, leaving the English thoroughly defeated on the field of battle, leaving Robert to claim his crown.

The entire time I was watching this film, I found myself wondering: why Chris Pine? I mean, of all the Chrises who are currently making their way in Hollywood, he’s probably the last one that I would have picked to play a man like Robert the Bruce. To be fair, he does a creditable job in the role, but he really lacks the charisma and weightiness to really make his portrayal of a truly epic hero. The fact that he isn’t Scottish, and that he doesn’t really make an effort to speak in an accent really hamstrings his portrayal.

The rest of the cast does their best with a script that doesn’t really give them a lot of room for development. Stephen Dillane, fresh out of his outing as the hard-nosed and implacable Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones, turns in a convincing performance as the heartless and cruel Edward I, arguably one of the sternest and brutal kings that England has ever produced. Florence Pugh is moderately engaging as Robert’s wife Elizabeth, though I have to admit that there wasn’t much chemistry there, and I was not significantly moved by their “romance.”

Where the film really succeeds, however, is in its cinematography. Like all good epics–especially those set in mountainous regions such as Scotland, the film makes good use of its scenery. Time and again, the camera flies overhead, revealing grand, sweeping vistas that literally take one’s breath away. Unfortunately, the actual dramatic part of the film doesn’t have nearly as strong an effect, and while I enjoyed the story, I really didn’t feel moved at any points. It was, despite the huge amount of blood gore, a largely bloodless affair.

Speaking of all of that blood and gore…it seems that, to match the grimdark sub-genre of fantasy, we’re now to be subjected history films and TV series that do the same. Some, such as History Channel’s Vikings, can get away with it because they have a cast and a story that is engaging on its own. Films like Outlaw King, however, lean far too much into this “gritty” portrayal of the medieval past. In fact, the film’s final battle is just one long, muddy, cacophonous mess.

Aside from the gratuitously loud sound that always seemed to accompany these sequences, we also have the fact that it becomes rather boring after a while. I’m not saying that bloodshed and battle shouldn’t be part of the representation of the medieval past, but I do wonder whether this new mud, blood, and guts method of portraying that period is nearly as titillating or visually interesting as the producers and directors seem to think. As with sex (which used to be the go-to for historical fictions), one has to make sure that all of the titillation has a story and characters to support it. Outlaw King, unfortunately, has neither.

All in all, I thought that Outlaw King was a fine outing as far as it goes, a brief foray into a period of Anglo-Scottish history that hasn’t been tapped really well since Braveheart (say what you will about that film’s abuses of history, it’s still a damn fine epic). Unlike Braveheart, however, I do rather doubt that Outlaw King will stand the test of time to become a marker of what the genre can do.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Anastasia” (1956)

I’ve always had a fascination with the legend of Anastasia Romanov, the youngest daughter of the doomed Nicholas and Alexandra who was rumoured, for much of the 20th Century, to have survived the massacre that struck her family. Before there was the exquisite Anastasia of animated fame, there was the 1956 film starring Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman.

The film is a briskly paced drama. While this was not quite what I was expecting–given the grandiosity of the subject matter–it works well for the film, rendering it more of a character study than the epic one might expect to tell the story of one of the most famous royals of the 20th Century. Though there are a few scenes that contain the extravagance one might expect from a period drama, for the most part the tension is between the three principal characters: General Bounine (Brynner), Anna Koref (Bergman), and the Dowager Empress Marie (Helen Hayes).

All three characters have an investment in maintaining the fiction that Anna really is the long-lost Anastasia. For Bounine, it’s the chance to make a great deal of money, while for Anna herself it is a means of recovering an identity that she may in fact have never had. And of course for the Dowager, it represents an opportunity to regain the loving family that was taken away from her in the fires of brutal revolution.

The film finds its most soaring effect is in its use of music. There is a remarkable sequence during a visit to Denmark to visit the Dowager Empress and the exuberant strains of Tchaikovsky greet her entrance (though her face isn’t revealed for a few more minutes). Though she is a supporting character, Helen Hayes manage to imbue this formidable historical figure with a grace that cannot be rivaled.

Bergman manages to imbue her own figure with a certain tragic elegance, as she is drawn in to the plot of Brynner’s rapacious general. As he draws her into his scheme, she begins to lose even the sense of who she is. Is she, in fact, the long-lost daughter of the tsar, or is she just another nameless orphan who has been brought into the scheme of an avaricious and embittered nobleman? The film leaves the answer unclear, and that is part of the pleasure.

She is matched by two other formidable characters, Brynner’s general and Helen Hayes’ iron-clad Dowager. Yul Brynner has always been one of my favourite actors from classic Hollywood, an object of simply exquisite and imposing male beauty. This film is no exception and, while he once again plays something of an asshole, he still maintains a measure of charisma. One always has to wonder what really lurks behind that austere and often callous exterior, what fiery, sensuous heart lurks in that brutal breast.

For her part, Hayes is truly magnificent of one of the 20th Century’s most tragic figures, a woman who lost her entire family and was frequently beset  She seems to bite off her words in a tense conversation with the general, and she is even more scathing to her attendant, remarking acerbically, “To a woman of your age, sex should be nothing but gender.” This is truly one of the most wonderful lines I have heard in a film.

More than that, though, Hayes is in many ways the emotional center of the film. When she finally comes to accept Anderson as her long-lost granddaughter, it is a truly heart-wrenching moment in the purest melodramatic form (ironically, she initially condemns Anna for indulging in precisely that kind of melodrama). If you don’t feel the familiar tug on your heartstrings that is the hallmark of a really good (which is to say, effective) Hollywood melodrama, then you may want to reconsider whether you are actually a fully-functioning human.

Given that we now know with a certainty that Anastasia was in fact murdered with the rest of her family, the film cannot but be fundamentally melancholy. We know all too well that the glamorous Russian princess perished at Yekaterinburg, the victim of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yet the film, as any good melodrama should, indulges our hope that maybe, just maybe, history has lied to us, that in the world of fantasy known as Hollywood film, the doomed Russian princess lives on. It might be a fantasy, but it’s a pleasant one.

All in all, Anastasia is a truly compelling product of its time, full of beautiful colours, exquisite performances, and a story that is as sad as it is beautiful. Truly an exquisite film.

Dissertation Days (48): I’m Tired of Thinking About Cute Titles

Today was an extraordinarily productive day. I was able to churn out 1,500 words of Chapter 4 (most of which was quite good, I think). I focused mainly on the historical context, though I wrote some introductory material for what will eventually be the theoretical section.

Overall, I think that the historical context is a strong section, perhaps the strongest and most cohesive that I’ve written since Chapter 2. I’m looking at the ways in which the postwar political order that was so desperate to attain a measure of stability was always thwarted by the tensions of the postwar period, whether it was the escalating conflict between the US and the Soviet Union or the growing independence movements with all of the violence that entailed.

As I move forward, I just have to make sure that I continue drawing explicit connections between the context I’m laying out and the readings of the films. This has been my Achilles’ Heel since I began this dissertation, but I would like to think that I have avoided it (or at least addressed it) with this chapter. That, however, very much remains to be seen.

I also continued my effort to make some commentary on Chapter 1. I’d prefer not to wait until the last minute to do that, even though I have to admit that it is my least favourite part of the whole dissertation-writing process. It’s quite remarkable, though, to see how very different this chapter is from the ones that followed it. I do think that I am onto something, but the writing is a bit clunky at spots, and I can see there are points where what I really mean isn’t expressed as clearly as it should be. Of course, I just have to remind myself that that is what revision is for, to gradually distill one’s ideas down until they emerge in their clearest and most coherent form.

Tomorrow, I’m going to continue making progress on Chapter 4, and I hope to make my way through 10 pages of Chapter 1 (and make the appropriate commentary). At the pace I’m currently keeping, I should have a draft of Chapter 4 ready by the middle of September (which is my very ambitious goal). I just have to stay focused.

I can feel the finish line growing closer and closer. I just have to remember that I can do this.

I got this.

Let’s go.

Dissertation Days (47): Back to Work I Go

Well, we returned back to work today. The Dissertation is coming along quite nicely, and I am actually confident that I can produce a workable, submittable draft by the middle of September. Not, mind you, that that will be the final version, but I want the Adviser to have seen all of the chapters in some form before I start sending out applications.

And, what’s more, I finally found that missing piece that’s been eluding me for so long. When I wrote this sentence, I knew that, at last, the pieces were sliding into place: “I then turn to each of the films, beginning with Cleopatra, moving to Fall, and ending with The Bible, showing how each can be understood as a form of melancholy utopia, mourning a world that might have been but can never be.”

It’s that last bit that I find to be the most useful, as it helps me to make clear that what I am working toward is an understanding of these films and their affective charge. I have to say, this is the clearest expression yet of the central claim that I’m setting out in this chapter, and that is an amazing feeling.

Tomorrow, I am going to work on setting out some of the important contextual material, particularly the (failed) promise of the United Nations and the increasing disintegration of the old imperial powers and the United States ascendancy. With a 1,000 word goal per day, I think I should be able to knock this section out of the park within the week. What’s more, I might even be able to move into the theory section. We’re picking up steam, folks!

As I’ve said before, I think I’m going to aim for 15K words on this chapter, possibly a bit more. I think that will be enough to do justice to the complexity of the argument. And besides, I really just want to get this thing out of the door as soon as possible.

The Adviser has suggested that I might do a Chapter 5, and…yeah. That’s not happening. Gotta get this shit done!

Also, I’ve been working on job materials, and they are coming along quite well. I am surprisingly excited about being on the job market. It’s a good feeling.

So, tomorrow is definitely going to be a tremendously productive day. I can feel it.

And I can do it.

Dissertation Days (45): Insert Clever Title Here

Today, I worked mostly on context, with a little bit of composition in the discussion of Fall of the Roman Empire. I also wove in some criticism of Cleopatra into that section. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the material that I produced today, though I also know that there will need to be some finessing and trimming done (those goddamn couplets are still proving to be something of a thorn in my side).

All in all, this was quite a good day, especially since my productivity tends to slow down when I’m visiting West Virginia. I noticed some repetition in the historical section, so I’ll have to take care of that, but it does seem as if the broad contours of that are pretty much in place. One of these days soon, I’m going to have to take another look at the theoretical section. There are a number of coordinates in that section that I think work well separately, but I need to make sure that they all fit together in a coherent whole and, just as importantly, that they also lead directly into the discussion of the films.

I also like the material I produced about The Fall of the Roman Empire. I’ll need to do some re-reading of secondary material once I return to Syracuse, so I can begin layering that it more consistently. As we know, that will also help me to nuance my arguments and explain how my own contribution elaborates on the existing scholarly conversation about this particular film.

Though this draft still has a number of weaknesses, I am determined to make this the draft that I end up submitting. It’s hard not to get frustrated, and I have to keep reminding myself that sometimes, it’s okay to spend a day revising rather than just producing more words. Old habits die hard, though. Still, I am also a determined person, and so I shall continue endeavouring to revise this chapter as the days go by. Someday soon, I know, this chapter will be done.

Tomorrow, I may not get anything done. Lots of obligations, but I’ll surely write another 1,500 words or so in the following week. Plus, I hope to be able to start the revision of Chapter 1 soon, and if I keep up the pace I should have both Chapters 1 and 2 in pretty much finished shape by the end of August.

Onward!