July the 4th is of course a very patriotic day for one nation in particular. Us Brits like to moan about the Yanks now and again because perhaps old rivalries never quite die no matter how close the friendship. We have an even fonder tendency to exchange banter with our French friends across the channel. On Independence Day the story of one of their most fascinating monarchs arrives on DVD.
Henry of Navarre (aka Henri 4) has all the ingredients of an epic historical romp. Its visceral battle scenes, complete with frenetic handheld camerawork as well as sweeping shots, have been likened to Ridley Scott’s iconic set pieces by Variety. Its period details are meticulous and vivid, from costume to setting. Its themes of religious freedom, love and power are at once more inspiring than modern day concerns and still relevant. And of course, as addictive TV dramas such as The Tudors and Rome have proved, no story of royalty and betrayal is complete these days without plenty of nudity and animalistic sex.
Henri, played by Julien Boisselier, is a charmer from childhood. The film begins with the prince of Navarre, a small region of France, paying the girls as a mere boy for a glimpse up their skirts. He goes on to seduce, overpower and caress several other women throughout the course of the film. The first set of bedroom scenes, with a Catholic he is told to marry to secure peace, verge on the violent, fuelled by religious resentment and suspicion. They scratch and bite like tigers just released from a zoo. Henry of Navarre is not a film short on beautiful women or erotic encounters.
But Henri is still likeable despite his cavorting, which prompts his second wife to describe him as a “horny old goat”. Boisselier plays him as a man disillusioned by the role and world he was born into but determined to change things pragmatically. The film begins with Henri leading the Protestant Huguenots against the greater part of France controlled by the Catholic Medici family. Henri is encouraged into a peacemaking marriage in Paris and during this part of the film within the city walls and the Louvre palace, overwhelming tension and intrigue builds, with relationships in the court difficult to decipher. Henri is well meaning but naive and the betrayal eventually comes with the tragedy of the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre.
At this point it’s hard to understand why Henri doesn’t flee but eventually he wins the trust of the traitors and escapes successfully. He returns to his roots in Navarre and builds up the strength of his home. By the end of the film Henri is King of all of France, with the price being his religious belief and identity. But despite his growing wisdom, Henri’s childhood innocence and kindness is also preserved by Boisselier’s performance. This is a very modern film because Henri puts aside labels of religion and ancestry to cherish things that really matter in life and leadership; loyalty, friendship, love and freedom.
Henry of Navarre has its faults. It could do with being half an hour shorter but the two and a half hour runtime is more than filled with the substance of Henri’s fascinating life. Not all of the acting is assured, with Ulrich Noethen’s performance as Charles IX too over the top and caricatured regardless of the troubled nature of the monarch. The battle scenes, despite their initial impact, become repetitive. You are carried through it all though by the compelling complexity and emotion of Henri’s story and the appeal of his character. This would appear to be a diverse film faithful to history that both entertains and educates.
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Last year the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was dubbed a “King Maker” by many in the press, due to the historic power afforded to him as a result of a hung parliament. He could either prop up grumpy Gordon or crack open the party poppers for Dave’s coronation. The public rejoiced in watching the usual big boys squirm and a new man get a chance to pull the strings. But now no one agrees with Nick and he’s plummeted from the heights of Britain’s most popular to the land’s favourite burning effigy. Thousands genuinely hate him and want to scratch out his entrails for his sickening, unnatural marriage to the Tories. They despise him for drunkenly tossing away longstanding pledges to the public on his stag night and loathe him for cutting chunks from the country’s finances lustfully on honeymoon. For many it’s a painful, all consuming dislike of this one yellow tied Westminster suit amongst hundreds.
It’s sometimes easy to accept the idea that in today’s world, truly bad films don’t get made anymore. It’s impossible to find two hours in front of a screen with some flickering images completely unsatisfying. You can’t hate a piece of filmmaking like you hate a man. You can’t find it as painfully offensive to your artistic taste and morality as swathes of reckless, damaging government spending cuts. This may be true. Even the most misguided projects I review usually have some kind of redeeming quality, at least one moment of real enjoyment or an admirable aim. But The King Maker is a film that took only 60 seconds for me to want the blessed release of the end credits. It’s an absolute and total turkey, the sort of film that goes straight to the bottom shelf at Tesco for a reason, the sort of film that without qualification deserves the label: BAD.
Out of scores and scores of poor movies, The King Maker is one of the few that if you have any sense of quality and taste, you’ll rapidly be able to regard with something close to hate. Seriously you should heed my warning if you want to avoid an excruciating hour and a half; do not watch The King Maker. Certainly DO NOT PAY ANY (real) MONEY TO SEE THIS. You might think its 88 minute running time short, but it feels a hell of a lot longer and you’ll never get those precious minutes back. There is nothing at all to justify spending time on this lifeless, empty shell of a film.
Literally nothing at all, everything about The King Maker is purely bad. As I’ve said it takes less than a minute for the shoddy editing and woefully low production standards present throughout to raise their ugly, persistent heads. The film opens with an action chase sequence peppered with ludicrous ninja/karate style high kicks and flips. There are jumps and landings that would be laughable were the tone not so serious or the camerawork and execution not so dire. In fact much of the action in The King Maker could be from a masterful slice of slapstick Charlie Chaplin or a ridiculous Monty Python sketch. But The King Maker is not even so bad it is funny. At times it ought to be hilarious. I did not laugh or smile once at its awfulness though. Afterwards my face hurt from the exhaustive efforts of a non-stop grimace.
The main reason I can’t even recommend The King Maker as refreshing fest of unintentional LOL moments is because it’s evident that the actors are trying so damn hard. You can’t have a good old heartening chuckle at all those involved in the film when it’s so obvious that they were trying to make something good; they have no idea how shit it is and you’re left with an endless feeling of painful pity. Every element of the movie is bad, every acting performance poor at best and agonisingly awful at worst. In fairness to the cast they are not helped by the script. Rather than rant about its failures one quote sums up the clunky, grating quality of the dialogue: “Look it’s the king’s emissary, I wonder what he wants?”.
For what it’s worth the film chronicles the story of Portuguese mercenary Fernando De Gama (Gary Stretch), who is shipwrecked in Siam and rescued from slavery by his love interest. He works his way up through the ranks of society, stumbles across a plot, and has scores of his own to settle blah blah blah…it’s really not worth it.
There are continuity errors aplenty, an out of place soundtrack that will make you cringe, silly stunts and cliché black and white flashbacks. CGI of a port full of ships looks like it’s been taken from an unsuccessful computer game with unconvincing Windows 98 graphics (the water in particular looks atrocious). In fact the plot and action set pieces and horrible attempts at a historical setting all seem like ingredients from an out of date, bargain basement video game. There are even punch and kick sound effects ripped straight from cartoon archives.
Despite my partial defence of the actors earlier, the standout flaws of this film are their totally unbelievable performances. The worst offender is the plotting Queen and her lover as they fail to convey the passion of their secret affair. The majority of their scenes together seem like a disappointing porno with an inexplicable lack of flesh on show. Another potentially career devastating turn comes from lead Gary Stretch. His limp delivery of lines serves as the final nail in the coffin for The King Maker. Even a film so badly executed could have salvaged some likeability with a charismatic turn from the lead actor. Stretch merely drags things further into painful depths of disappointment and dismalness.
The King Maker was supposed to be a spectacular showcase of Thailand. It’s only the third Thai film to be made in the English language, and the first since 1941. There are some superb, beautiful locations occasionally visible in the background amongst the appalling action of the story. But they don’t deserve to be associated with the worst film I’ve seen this year and I suspect the favourite by a mile in the race for worst film of 2011.
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Peter Morgan may or may not see his script for the 23rd James Bond film become a reality, and it may or not be a picture directed by acclaimed director Sam Mendes, but Morgan has certainly not struggled to make films about former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Equally serial impressionist Michael Sheen has not found it hard to play the charming leader, taking on the role in previous dramas The Deal, The Queen and now The Special Relationship. Sheen has made a living out of playing real people, from the chaotic camp of Kenneth Williams to the masculine self assurance of football manager Brian Clough and he has always fitted snugly into Blair’s recognisable suits and effortlessly donned his trademark grin. As with Morgan’s previous examinations of Blair The Special Relationship looks at a particular period of this remarkable man’s life through a narrow lens with a small cluster of essential characters. This is the story of Clinton and Blair; the President’s influence on the Prime Minister, the wives influence on the two men’s friendship and the advisers grappling with how best to make use of such ideological and personal bonds.
Blair’s devious tabloid spin doctor Alastair Campbell slammed Morgan’s latest drama before it premiered on BBC2 on Saturday night as a complete work of fiction bearing almost no relation to the facts and events as they happened. Now whilst it must be true that Morgan wielded creative license to craft a number of personal scenes between the two leaders and the leaders and their wives, as he cannot have known the content of such intimate chats besides glimpses from memoirs, Campbell’s utter rejection of the drama’s credibility may be down to his own less than flattering portrayal. The special media adviser appears to be a brash, sneering and crude presence throughout. He represents the dark side of Blair he had to embrace in order to haul Labour out of Opposition in a new media age, a dark side of tabloid manipulation and sinister back stabbing and sordid scandals. Campbell is less of a character in Morgan’s drama than a commentator providing rolling coverage of the headlines at the time, highlighting the worst of public bloodlust and opinion, slipping in details that both provide background and represent the scale of the struggle Blair faces to get things done, when faced with an indifferent public more motivated by the shape of a President’s penis than his foreign policy commitments.
In fact given the political nature of the subject matter it’s hard to get to know any of the characters in The Special Relationship, because we don’t know them and neither did Morgan writing the script. We recall the events of the time, remember the urgency they tried to convey in their speeches and are familiar with their managed images in front of the flash bulbs. But even when we see Dennis Quaid’s brooding Clinton, seemingly drained by scandal and the web of lies he has entangled himself in, it’s impossible to deduce the sentiment of the man, he’s presented as a blank, an enigma of a stress deliberating how best to handle the political fallout. Hillary is arguably the most lifelike character in this drama and she is sensitively played. The restrained emotion is there, visibly only just in check but her ambition and necessity trap her in her situation. She doggedly soldiers on.
The events, somewhat inevitably, are major characters in themselves in this historical drama. That’s not to say we don’t get insight into character; it’s clear early on that despite Clinton’s insistence that Blair owes him nothing he expects good old Tony to tow the line. Initially he does so, movingly and hesitantly sticking his neck out over the affair, but when Blair makes a stand on Kosovo Clinton is not prepared to be in Blair’s debt, he was always managing the upstart Brit whatever the praise. It’s when the plot gathers pace over the Kosovan crisis that this drama comes into its own, engaging far more than the early, plodding set up of the Clinton-Blair relationship. Blair refuses to be politically positioned like a pawn by Clinton and the stage is set for confrontation. Churchillian like speeches full of inspiration captured the mood of the new millennium, a mood of optimistic cooperation in which every nation with a moral compass could play its part and make a genuine difference, a mood banished by 9/11 and the subsequent retaliation. It’s odd to think that Clinton’s America, although led by an adulterer, was more trusted and respected around the world and that Blair was able to harness goodwill felt towards it.
Blair’s boldness wins over the American press, with gushing approval ratings calling for him to run for the Presidency. Throughout the piece however the more experienced Clinton urged Blair to consider his legacy, not just fickle opinion polls, and whilst it may seem triumph in Kosovo secured it for Blair we all knew it was to be eclipsed, and the drama ends ominously with his heart and mind in the right place, committed to a pragmatic, meaningful relationship with new Republican President George Bush, but ultimately to underestimate and be sucked into a damaging legacy he would never shake off. Popularity would pass by Tony Blair just as it passed for Bill Clinton and both men arguably spurned opportunities to make use of it. The Special Relationship of progressive centre left leaders, leading the world in a unified, positive banishment of right-wing politics to the dark ages never truly materialised. Morgan’s drama ends by asking topical questions raised by the release of Blair’s memoir; did Blair waste his legacy and was he ever the politician he claimed to be, given his current support for the coalition, or was he just a self-centred man grabbing his place in history with both hands, wherever he had to reach to? Whatever the answers, despite Clinton’s warning to Blair that rhetoric alone is not enough, both leaders had moments in this drama that demonstrated the enormous power of words in the hands of a politician and leader, the power to ignite, transform and inspire, but also sadly, to disappoint.
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I’ve been closely following announcements relating to this year’s Booker Longlist and indeed public interest in general seems to be up. According to this BBC article sales of those selected in the initial 13 are at their highest since Ian McEwan’s Atonement was among the nominees in 2001.
Interestingly McEwan’s latest novel, Solar, is one of a number of high profile omissions from the list, with Martin Amis also missing out. There has been debate as to whether this indicates that more humorous storytelling is not being recognised by a judging panel headed by former poet laureate Andrew Motion. Solar has been well received critically elsewhere, with McEwan winning a prize dedicated to writers following in the tradition of comic writer P.G Wodehouse. I’m a fan of McEwan and quickly digested Solar, but disagree with the way it has been portrayed as a purely comic novel. There are some delightful comic set pieces in the book which are beautifully crafted and provide a refreshing contrast to the usual content of McEwan’s diverse work, showcasing a side of his writing repertoire rarely praised. However most of the humour is less direct and subtly layered over the rich characterisation of the bumbling protagonist Michael Beard, with a lot of serious comment on our culture of waste and the greedy nature of mankind as an obstacle to tackling climate change. McEwan also makes us feel pity and other emotions for Beard; we are invited to empathise with an ordinary man of simple needs hounded by the media as well as cringe and giggle at his stupidity.
Ultimately the Booker judges may have perhaps ignored Solar because it lacked the epic sweep present in some of the other nominations and which was certainly there in the “fictional panorama” that was Atonement in 2001. I have only just finished reading The Glass Room by Simon Mawer from last year’s longlist and that was a novel that perfectly demonstrated how grand scales and themes can add to the likelihood of recognition. A story about minimalist architecture and ideas largely taking place in the grim turmoil of Eastern Europe, The Glass Room may not seem ideal “summer reading” material if there is such a thing, but I found it easily readable divided as it was into manageable chunks and driven by compelling human relationships. At times the focus on interlocking loves and sex lives became repetitive but the opening portion of the book in which the idea for a striking, modern home is conceived and then lived in by a complex family driven away by the Nazi menace is so gripping that you are carried to the end of the book by acute curiosity as to the fate of the house and its former inhabitants. Mawer grapples with themes such as fidelity, homosexuality, friendship, the permanence of architecture, the perfection of ideas and the problems of expression when translating between languages. Overall the novel also covers vast historical ground, charting the physical and emotional scars left by seismic political change. I am yet to read Hilary Mantel’s winning novel from last year, Wolf Hall, which sits expectantly in my room but it too was suitably epic and historical and I would guess superior to The Glass Room, despite its strong points.
This love of the epic and grand and historical continues into this year’s longlist, if not literally then in the depth and intensity of content. The Room by Emma Donoghue and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas both deal with particularly intense or extreme experiences for example; a child’s captivity in The Room and a child slapped by a stranger in The Slap. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the latest and most conventional offering yet from one of my favourite authors David Mitchell, is set in colonial Japan. It is the only title from this year’s list I have read so far and it was suitably epic whilst less engaging and cinematic than his previous offerings. I have ordered The Slap as I am intrigued by its differing narrative perspectives, the gripping nature of one moment in time rippling outwards with consequences and a view of Australian culture I am not familiar with. Generally I am surprised with how tempting I find most of the books selected for this year’s longlist, judging by extracts I have read via the Guardian website.
C by Tom McCarthy also interests me as it is supposedly experimental whilst also continuing that theme of grappling with grand ideas such as communication, science and discovery. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson seems to be excellently written and contain that humour some thought to be lacking after the exclusion of McEwan and Amis, going by the Guardian extract. All the others, as you would expect, seem well crafted and I encourage you to take a look at the previews. Here is the full 13:
- Peter Carey, Parrot and Oliver in America
- Emma Donoghue, Room
- Helen Dunmore, The Betrayal
- Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room
- Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question
- Andrea Levy, The Long Song
- Tom McCarthy, C
- David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
- Lisa Moore, February
- Paul Murray, Skippy Dies
- Rose Tremain, Trespass
- Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap
- Alan Warner, The Stars in the Bright Sky
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