Wednesday, November 25, 2020
Entertainment

Five Movies About Royals to Compete with “The Crown”

Five Movies About Royals to Compete with “The Crown”
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Just between us, when it comes to royalty I’m in the off-with-their-crowns camp. But kings and queens nonetheless do the House of Cinema proud: tales of irrational authority make for good drama—and ones of fantastic cultural absurdity make for good comedy. The subject of monarchy is a severe test of directors’ artistry, because the lofty royal way of life and the guarded chambers of power demand extremes of imagination as well as an analytical and unflinching confrontation with power. For many of the greatest filmmakers, royalty gives rise to artistic revelations; for the cinema over all, movies about monarchs are an international counterpart to the American Western, an inescapably and essentially political genre.

“Orlando”

(1992, Sally Potter)

Sally Potter’s adaptation of the novel by Virginia Woolf provides a sumptuous framework for Tilda Swinton’s ethereal virtuosity while showing the twists and turns of one fantastic private life that’s imbued and deformed by the prerogatives and caprices of royal power. That power is first embodied in Queen Elizabeth I—played with quietly gleeful ferocity by Quentin Crisp—who, in 1600, elevates the androgynous young man Orlando to a place by her side. Orlando makes his way through the pressure cookers of the seventeenth century’s absolute rule—including the repudiation of an arranged marriage at court, in favor of an affair with a Russian princess (Charlotte Valandrey) and, in 1700, an ambassadorial posting to Constantinople. Orlando, lurching ahead in half centuries and centuries, never ages, but nonetheless changes: emerging as a woman in the eighteenth century, she confronts a new age of aristocratic authority and then endures its legalistic persecution until, brought up to speed in London in the late twentieth century, she still faces the pomp and cultural primacy of the same damned monarchy. Potter’s ironies, veering between the blunt and the exquisite, the oblique and the confrontational, expose the cruel hazards of nature and the perversities of culture. (Streaming on Amazon, iTunes, and other services.)

“Princess Yang Kwei-fei”

(1955, Kenji Mizoguchi)

Photograph from Alamy

Kenji Mizoguchi, one of the greatest political filmmakers, affirmed throughout his career that the subordination of women was no accident of the political order but its very essence—and not only in his native Japan. This historical drama, his first in color (released the year before his death), set in eighth-century China, in the Tang Dynasty, is the tale of an emperor’s downfall. The aging but vigorous leader, Emperor Xuanzong (Masayuki Mori), was inconsolably mourning his late wife; an aspiring courtier from the Yang clan brings a smart and beautiful but poor cousin, Yuhuan (Machiko Kyo), to the Emperor; with her display of wisdom and empathetic spirit, he falls in love with her and, making her his consort, brings the Yangs to the court. But the luxuries of the new courtiers put heavy demands on taxpayers, who rise up in revolt and demand the death of the Yangs—including Yuhuan, the new Princess, now named Kwei-fei. Mizoguchi films the imperial romance with robust ardor and delicate humor; he delineates the cruelly punitive constraints of law that are placed on women at court with bitter clarity; and he ruefully exalts the tragic nobility of the sacrifice that is ultimately required of the heroine to save the Emperor’s reign. (Streaming on the Criterion Channel.)

“Chimes at Midnight”

(1965, Orson Welles)

Shakespeare was intimate with royalty, and Orson Welles was intimate with Shakespeare. This film, the last dramatic feature that Welles completed in his lifetime (and, I’d contend, his greatest film of all), is centered on the character of Falstaff—whom he played with self-mocking grandiosity—the saga of Prince Hal (played by Keith Baxter), drawn from five of Shakespeare’s plays, mainly Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. The turbulent action at the English court, where Henry IV (John Gielgud) despairs of the prodigal Prince of Wales and joins dubiously with him to suppress a rebellion, culminates in a spectacularly furious and complex depiction of the Battle of Shrewsbury, and Hal’s single combat with Henry (Hotspur) Percy (played by Norman Rodway). Welles, working with a scant budget, assembles a cast of mighty Shakespeareans, including Margaret Rutherford, as Mistress Quickly, who runs the Boar’s Head Tavern, where Falstaff and friends cavort, and Jeanne Moreau, as the prostitute Doll Tearsheet. Filling in the historical background with a voice-over narration from Holinshed’s Chronicles, delivered by Ralph Richardson, Welles blends the lusty earthiness of his own mock hero with the rarefied, highly principled, and austerely disciplined calling of a monarch’s legitimate rule—and, from that contrast, derives multiple dimensions of tragedy and devises a passionately vigorous repertory of images to embody it. (Streaming on Amazon, HBO Max, the Criterion Channel, and other services.)

“The Scarlet Empress”

(1934, Josef von Sternberg)

The cruelty, as Americans have learned in the past four years, is the point of unchallenged power, and Josef von Sternberg makes the cruelty the point in his lurid and macabre spectacle about the rise to absolute power of Catherine the Great, of Russia, who’s played with an arachnid subtlety by Marlene Dietrich. But, first, the empress’s childhood, in Prussia, where, as the Princess Sophia Frederica (Maria Riva), she’s reminded of her courtly duties and instead expresses the wish to become an executioner. Married off to Peter, the idiot nephew of Russia’s Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (Louise Dresser), the bride—renamed Catherine—makes the imperial army (and, in particular, one handsome young officer) her ally in the patient but Machiavellian struggle for power, which is also a struggle for survival. Sternberg, Hollywood’s greatest dramatic stylist of the thirties (and there’s no close second), relies on high-contrast lighting, oddly distorting angles, images filmed through the twisted contours of gargoyles and carvings, flickering torches and candles, and the evil glint of swords and gems to match the luminous opacity that Dietrich maintains in portraying the aristocrat who transforms herself from a timidly submissive newcomer to a fiercely conquering heroine. (Streaming on Dailymotion.)

“The Taking of Power by Louis XIV”

(1966, Roberto Rossellini)

Photograph from Everett

Leave it to Roberto Rossellini, one of the most philosophical of filmmakers, to dramatize the very idea of monarchy and its enduring allure. His historical drama is centered on the twenty-two-year-old Louis XIV (Jean-Marie Patte), who, with the death of Cardinal Mazarin (César Silvagni), in 1661, faced rebellious threats of the aristocracy and conceived an ingenious long-term plan to consolidate power: by means of culture. Rather than crudely attempting to impose his authority, he decided to bestow it; he saw to the construction of the Palace of Versailles and housed his nobles there in style; he supervised the development of an elaborate court culture—of high fashion, high cuisine, and high art—that would put aristocrats heavily into debt that only he could forgive, and would also create jobs for craftspeople throughout the land. Rossellini deftly and briskly turns ideas into action; the pageantry of a fourteen-course meal and the tailoring of pants with lace thrillingly dramatize a political manifesto, and the Three Musketeers have a brief and crucial cameo as the strong arm of power as well as its public face. (Streaming on the Criterion Channel.)



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