Category Archives: Screening History

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 History: Mary, Queen of Scots (2018)

For some time now I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of the newest film to focus on the tumultuous and tragic life of Mary, Queen of Scots and her tempestuous relationship with her cousin Elizabeth I.

The film focuses primarily on the fraught relationship between Mary, Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Once Mary returns from her youth in France, she finds herself confronted by her scheming Scottish lords, a disloyal husband, and by the machinations of her cousin and rival Elizabeth. Despite her best efforts, Mary is ultimately deposed by her lords (who are egged on by David Tenant’s fiery and bigoted John Knox), flees to England, and is ultimately executed for her participation in a plot against Elizabeth’s life and throne.

While the film is more historically accurate than some, it does contain what has become something of a requirement in films about these two feuding monarchs: a face-to-face meeting that never (so far as we know) actually occurred. In this meeting, arguably the film’s climax, Elizabeth finally reveals the truth: that she has long crafted her own persona around her fear of her cousin and rival queen. However, and just as importantly, she also asserts that it is precisely Mary’s most noteworthy qualities–her impetuousness, her heightened emotion, her youth–that have ultimately brought about her downfall. Elizabeth, meanwhile, continues to hold onto her throne and her power.

Ultimately, the film seems to agree with Elizabeth. Mary is passionate and intelligent, but she refuses to put her duty to country above her own wishes and desires. What’s more, she tends to be far too naive to be able to survive the cutthroat world of her Scottish nobility, who balk at her efforts to bring them to heel. She also allows herself to fall perilously in love with Darnley and indulges her fondness for her Italian secretary David Rizzio to a degree that leaves her open to an attack from her disaffected brothers, particularly her brother Moray. (Somewhat implausibly, the film suggests that Mary is totally okay with Rizzio’s explicit queerness).

The film is visually  splendid, and the costumes rustle and glitter with the wealth of the era. There are also some truly splendid shots of the Scottish scenery. Having just returned from an all-too-brief sojourn in that country, I can assure you that the films’ cinematography does it complete justice. Yet Mary struggles to make this beautiful land her own, her many years in France creating a distance between herself and her nobles that she proves incapable of effectively bridging.

What really makes the film shine, however, are the performances. Ronan does an excellent job as the youthful Queen of Scots, bringing her signature brand of fiery passion and steely determination to the role. Ronan’s Mary is a woman determined to forge her own path, regardless of what others advise her to do. She does a fine job at conveying the inner strength that motivated and sustained Mary through some of the darkest moments of her life, though at times her portrayal gives the doomed Scottish queen a bit too much credit. (I’ll try not to nitpick her accent, which still sounds more Irish than Scottish, and yes I know the real Mary would most likely have sounded French and not Scottish in any case).

As great as Ronan is at capturing Mary’s fiery spirit, it is Robbie who truly shines as Elizabeth (full confession: I’m Team Elizabeth, now and forever).  Though at times she is wracked by her sense of vulnerability in the face of Mary’s charisma, youth, and beauty, in their last fateful encounter she finally bares her true self to her cousin. In doing so, she reclaims the agency and assurance that she almost lost and proves once again that she is the queen most willing to sacrifice her own personal emotions and desires–particularly her love for her dear Robert Dudley. Unlike Mary, who refuses to acknowledge political reality, Elizabeth always has her pulse on the real world. She knows, and ultimately accepts, that she will have to give up her some essential parts of herself is she hopes to rule as a wise and just queen in a man’s world. And Elizabeth, even more than Mary, recognizes that there is room on their isle for only one of them.

The script, however, has some major weaknesses that the film struggles to overcome. For one thing, it is too short to adequately explore the various plot threads that it puts into play. For someone who is already well-acquainted with the history and politics of the period this isn’t too significant of a handicap, but I can see how someone who doesn’t know much about the depicted events would quickly become lost.

More significantly, the rushed nature of the script means that some of the key players–particularly Darnley and Bothwell–are woefully underdeveloped, their motives and actions left largely unexplained. A number of pivotal points of character development–Darnley’s betrayal, Bothwell’s rape of Mary–seem to come out of left-field. Had the writers either trimmed out these portions or had the director given some more time for the story to flex its muscles, it would have made a stronger drama. As it is, the performances of the two leads are definitely the best part about it.

All in all, I quite enjoyed Mary, Queen of Scots, despite some of its flaws. Is it as strong a film as some of the other fictional tellings of the doomed Scottish queen? Probably not. However, it does reveal the extent to which this tragic tale continues to hold on the imagination, and how extraordinary these women were in their efforts to rule in a man’s world. What’s more, it does at least attempt to convey the complicated politics of the era (hardly surprising, given that it is based on John Guy’s very popular and applauded biography of Mary) . For both of those reasons, it deserves a great deal of credit, and I look forward to seeing it again.

Screening History: The Fraught Pathos of “The Favourite” (2018)

If you know anything about it me, it’s that I’m an absolute sucker for a good costume drama. It’s been a while since I saw one that really blew me away, so when I saw the trailers for The Favourite, I was intrigued by what appeared to be a very irreverent take on the genre, particularly as it seemed like it was going to be as humourous as it was opulent. I have to say, I was very impressed by the film (except for the ending, to which I shall return shortly).

In brief, the film tells of the declining years of Queen Anne of Great Britain (Olivia Colman), who as the story begins is under the domination of the formidable Lady Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Their dysfunctional relationship is soon interrupted, however, by the arrival of Churchill’s impoverished cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) who soon sets her own sights on becoming the queen’s favourite. She succeeds, though she soon finds that being so close to the font of power comes with its own price.

It is sometimes very difficult (if not impossible) to really capture the strangeness of earlier historical periods, to convey to modern spectators the oddities and foibles of the past. Some filmmakers have succeeded at it (Peter Greenaway is one example), and clearly Yorgos Lanthimos deserves to join that select group. Between the outlandish makeup and wigs worn by the male characters and the (sometimes heavy-handed) use of the fisheye lens and shots taken from below, we are led to see this as a very disturbing world quite unlike our own.

At times, Olivia Colman (who’s becoming quite adept at playing queens) threatens to steal the show. Her Anne is at once imperious, pathetic, endearing, and Colman manages to wring every drop of morbid pathos from the role, leading us to feel sorry for Anne even as we condemn some aspects of her personality. She is clearly a woman who has long struggled to develop her own sense of self (with the confidence that entails), and so she relies on Sarah Churchill. There are moments when Colman’s performance slides into the grotesque, but even then Colman doesn’t let us lose sight of the queen’s essential frail humanity. It’s hard not to feel a profound sympathy for this queen who, by the time the story begins, has already lost 17 children and a husband. Small wonder that she pours all of her emotional frustrations into her small hoard of rabbits and into the women who maneuver for her affection. And, to be honest, it’s rather nice to see Queen Anne get some screen time, as she usually gets neglected by popular culture.

By contrast, Rachel Weisz’s Sarah Churchill is a formidable and indomitable personality. She is not afraid to tell Anne exactly what she thinks–as when she tells the monarch that her new makeup style makes her look like a badger–but she is also subject to Anne’s vicious jealousy. Weisz manages to capture Churchill’s biting wit and scathing commentary, at the same time as she makes it clear that this was a woman who cared deeply about the well-being of her country at both the domestic and international level. Weisz also deserves a great deal of credit for allowing a few moments of genuine vulnerability to creep into her characterization as well. We thus come to understand her as a woman quite out of place in her own time and ultimately punished for her unwillingness to conform to the expectations of others, even the queen.

The relationship between Anne and Sarah is as as refreshing as it is contentious. It’s very rare these days to see a film really delve into the complicated relationships between and among women. It’s clear to me at any rate that the film’s Sarah has genuine love and affection for Anne, though it’s somewhat less clear if their erotic encounters stem from genuine attraction or whether it is a rather twisted manifestation of their social roles. I strongly suspect that it is some combination of the two.

I have to admit to some skepticism that Emma Stone (much as I love her) would be able to pull off playing British, but she does it surprisingly well. What’s more, she imbued Abigail with a certain steely strength forged in the crucible of her troubled youth and her abuse at the hands of numerous men in her life. Abigail is not, strictly speaking, a sympathetic character–indeed, she is quite cold, malicious, and calculating–but she is comprehensible. The film allows us to see her as the necessary product of a culture that values women so little and largely views even the most powerful of them as expendable. Cruel as she might be, Stone lets us feel at least a measure of grudging respect for Abigail’s ability to not only survive her harsh environment, but to thrive in it.

Each of these characters, as different as they are, are hefty and complex and textured. Indeed, for all of its visual artistry (which, at times, becomes distracting), the film succeeds most as a character study of three women negotiating the dangerous waters of desire and royal politics. The Favourite doesn’t really want us to like these characters, but it does attempt to understand them. The three leads give some of the finest performances of their careers, and there is an unmistakable chemistry among them.

At a broader level, Lanthimos’ direction is at times distracting, and he seems a bit overly fond of the fisheye lens (which, to my mind, sometimes undercuts the opulence and grandeur of the film’s locations). The film’s truly significant flaw is the ending, which I found far too clever for its own good (in fact, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what it was supposed to signify, if anything). Those flaws aside, The Favourite still manages to take the conventions and contours of the costume drama and turns them on their head. The film is ultimately a biting, scathing, and slightly acidic musing on the nature of power and pleasure in the world of royalty and politics.

Screening History: “That Hamilton Woman” (1941)

If there’s any genre I love as much as the epic, it’s the costume drama. With all of its sumptuous decor, its melodramatic excess, and its focus on women, it’s a genre tailor-made (it would seem) for the discerning homosexual.

Such, indeed, is That Hamilton Woman, the 1941 film by Alexander Korda, starring the radiant Vivien Leigh and the dashing Laurence Olivier.

Vivien Leigh plays the titular role of Emma Hamilton, a commoner who becomes, first, the wife of the British ambassador Naples and, later, the mistress of the famous admiral Horatio Nelson. Their affair is the scandal of society, and ultimately Nelson must choose between his love for Emma and his duty to his country as the admiral and she, likewise, must decide whether to continue weaving her net about him or to let him go. The two of them must repeatedly confront the essential conflict between their personal love for one another and the responsibility that Horatio has to his country, given that he is one of the few commanders who stands between Napoleon and global domination. In the end, she sends him off to his duty, even though it means the end of their love.

At the beginning of the film, Emma has fallen on hard times, her once-great beauty diminished by years of penury. Yet even the makeup and bedraggled clothing cannot entirely efface Leigh’s exquisite beauty, which radiates outward rom the screen, limned by the dim light coming from outside her prison cell. Indeed, Leigh is one of those talents of old films whose face was made for the camera. With her fine cheekbones, full lips, and slightly-wide (and incredibly expressive) eyes, Leigh’s Emma frequently gazes off into the distance, her luminous eyes seeming to gaze into a future that can never be realized. Even when she sits in a jail cell, she seems to command our gaze.

Indeed, it is precisely Leigh’s performance that endows Emma with her tremendous presence, as a woman whose desires motivate the narrative. Given that the entire film is told as a flashback, I would argue that it is Emma’s perspective that dominates the entire film. In other words, through her perspective that we understand world-historical events to have another element besides the doings of great men on the stage of history. As such, Emma also comes across as a woman determined to see her desires fulfilled, even if that means that she goes against the strictures that society has placed upon women and their sexual behavior.

Emma’s great misfortune, however, is that the world she lives in is utterly incapable of seeing her as anything other than “that Hamilton woman,” an epithet always delivered with contempt, pity, or vituperation. And while she believes that love is the only thing she needs to sustain herself, a series of events have clearly brought her to the point that she is living on the streets, subject to the uncaring justice of the state. Through it all, however, Emma radiates strength, grace, and beauty.

Olivier as Nelson is a bit more unrestrained than one usually sees, and sometimes his performance veers dangerously close to scenery-chewing. However, this seems appropriate, given that he’s playing a man noted for his relentless energy and naval brilliance (it wasn’t every commander, after all, that dared to go after Napoleon Bonaparte). He certainly bears with him that signature Olivier scowl.

The film’s visual design is truly opulent, amply conveying to a jaundiced modern eye the splendour of a bygone era, when countries and individuals bestrode the world like ancient colossi. Despite its grand themes and historical concerns, That Hamilton Woman is equally adept at conveying the deep personal and emotional currents that have an impact on the actions of the great. For the film, Emma’s love of Nelson is true, rich, and deep, which makes its demise with his death at the Battle of Trafalgar all the more wrenching, for we know that Emma will be left with nothing except his illegitimate daughter.

The film’s final tragedy is that it denies us as viewers a view of the events that led Emma from being the mistress of one of the most powerful men in England to a beggar wandering the street. We are left yearning for what it is that fills in that lacuna, even as we also know that to see it would shatter the magnificent illusion that it has already spent so much time constructing. In refusing to grant us this image of her degradation, Emma retains her control on her own story until the very last, he weary countenance gazing into a past that can never be recaptured and a future devoid of even the remotest possibility of joy or love.

Rousing and resonant, That Hamilton Woman is a visually stunning exploration about the ways in which women are forced to maneuver the halls of power. And the punishment that often greets them when they do.

Screening History: “Troy: Fall of a City” (2018) and the Critique of Epic Masculinity

The story of the Trojan War has been told countless times in numerous forms: poetry, literature, film and, of course, television. Moving, tragic, and exhilarating, this narrative has produced works of great genius and lasting power (The Iliad) but also, unfortunately, some rather lackluster interpretations (Troy). Now, we have Troy: Fall of a City, a joint venture between Netflix and the BBC. More family drama than epic per se, the series nevertheless provides a stirring, at times even heart-wrenching, experience of this eternal myth.

One of the first things that struck me about this new retelling of the ancient myth is the impact that the medium of television has on the way in which the story is told. Whereas epic films tend to focus on huge battles, sweeping vistas, and larger-than-life heroes, television dramas focus more on personal relationships that nevertheless have enormous political and historical consequences. Thus it is that Fall of a City, while populated by the requisite heroes of antiquity–Agamemnon, Menelaus, Hector, Priam, Paris, Helen, Hecuba–manages to paint them as individuals with well-rounded personalities rather than archetypes. These are deeply-flawed human beings caught up in events and emotions that they cannot control but which will have a momentous impact on their world.

Somewhat surprisingly, it is Paris who is the center of the narrative. Portrayed by a strikingly handsome Louis T. Hunter, the Trojan prince raised by shepherds is a far more charismatic, and heroic, character than he traditionally appears in modern interpretations. True, he is quite pretty, but it is a more traditionally “masculine” sort than, say, Orlando Bloom, who brought a signature softness to the role. As a result, Troy paints this Paris (who it prefers to refer to as Alexander) in a more martial light. Far from sheltering under Hector’s blazing military glory, Alexander forges his own destiny, even stepping into his brother’s shoes when the former meets his agonizing death at the hands of Achilles.

Though Paris commands most of the attention, the series also adeptly fleshes out the struggles, both physical and emotional, of the other major players in this drama. What’s more, it imbues them with a deeply resonant emotional impact, so that the deaths that we know are coming–and, of course, the inevitable fall of Troy itself–are incredibly wrenching. If you don’t shed tears when Hector meets his fate at the hands of Achilles, then I don’t know what to tell you.

Because it has more running time through which to work, Troy reveals the competing and yet mutually-reinforcing causes of antiquity’s most famous conflict. While of course Paris’s taking of Helen (here portrayed as willing on her part), is the stark to the tinder, it is made clear that there have long been resentments and jealousies on the part of the Greeks, particularly Agamemnon. And, of course, there are also the gods, who periodically interfere with the affairs of humans, often to work through their own contentious relationships.

If this series proves anything, it’s that sometimes television is better at bringing out the fundamentally human drama at the heart of the ancient stories. Eight hours of running time allows us a significantly greater investment in these characters and their relationships, whether that be the psychologically complex Helen (a refreshing change), the deeply loving relationship between Hector and Andromache, or the tempestuous (but physical and sexual) relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. And, while we’re at it, let me just say how absolutely thrilled I was to see an Achilles and Patroclus depicted as lovers rather than as “cousins” or some other, equally infuriating euphemism.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that Troy works more in the idiom of the tragic than the epic, at least as these have taken shape within modern media. These are characters determined to make the best decisions that they can, even though each are condemned to follow a path they cannot shape to their own ends. Even the gods, who supposedly have more power than their mortal counterparts, seem unable to affect the course of the prophecy that has already foretold the doom of both Paris and his city.

Furthermore, Troy strips away the patina of legitimacy that typically adheres to Greek epic heroes, so that although Agamemnon, Menelaus, and even Achilles and Odysseus all exhibit exactly the types of behaviour that we have come to expect from our epic heroes, their violence remains coded as deeply sociopathic. Even Odysseus, arguably the most sympathetic of the Greek heroes, lies and deceives in the service of what he deems a higher purpose, even as he recognizes that Agamemnon and Menelaus are the worst that Greece can produce. Their lies are largely for their own gain, regardless of the cost to others. Achilles is ultimately deceived by his fellow Greeks into launching an all-out assault on the Trojans, an action which leads almost directly to his death at the hands of Paris.

As such, Troy is also a critique of the deeply violent and aggressive epic masculinity that has characterized epic films since at least Gladiator, a critique I’ve noticed in a number of ancient world films produced in the last couple of years. This ambiguity about the value and social function of epic heroism punctures even the end of the film, for while the Greeks have emerged victorious, theirs is a pyrrhic victory, a fact rendered explicit by Odysseus’ craggy, sad visage staring off into the distance at the very end. Any savvy viewer knows that almost of all of them will find their lives irrevocably marred by their actions.

All in all, I enjoyed Troy: Fall of a City for what it was, not for what I attempted to force it to be. Rather than holding it up to the standard of the epic–with its grandeur, its battles, its vast scope–I accepted this as a television drama. As such, I think it has much to tell us about how our expectations of epic heroism have changed and how disenchanted we have become with an ancient model that seems curiously out of touch with the modern world.