With Rufus Sewell playing Charles II in this historical biopic, Judge Amanda DeWees kept expecting the English monarch to use his reality-bending mind powers against Parliament.
The Merry Monarch gets a makeover.
First, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, a few words from the bench. Today we'll be trying the case of Charles II, also known as "the Merry Monarch" due to his licentious habits of drinking and wenching. If you'll open up your dossier to the testimony provided by witnesses David H. Willson and Stuart E. Prall in their History of England textbook, you'll find that, although he is "witty, charming, and amusing," a man of "keen intelligence" who is "a good judge of character," he is also "lazy and irresolute, prone to follow the course of least resistance, untrustworthy, ungrateful, and irreligious…[h]aving few principles of any kind" and seeing "virtue only in dissimulation and compromise." Due to his overriding desire for more financial freedom from Parliament, he is "ready to betray the religion of his country" in order to obtain money from foreign powers.
What was that, Mr. District Attorney? All this is prejudicial, you say? That's an excellent point. In fact, ladies and gentlemen, now that you've learned what the defendant is really like, forget all of it. None of it, after all, bears on the monarch who will appear in our court today.
What you see before you is a reformed character. That is to say, a work of fiction.
Facts of the Case
In 1660, the monarchy is restored to England after 20 years of civil war and government by Parliament—more specifically, the House of Commons—under the auspices of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. Charles II (Rufus Sewell, A Knight's Tale), still haunted by memories of his royal father's execution by these forces, returns to England from foreign exile and takes the throne. He now holds the tenuous position of monarch in an England that has done without a king for two decades, an England in which Parliament has become accustomed to wielding the power.
Sure enough, in his attempt to do right by his country, Charles finds himself butting heads with Parliament, which repeatedly constrains him to compromise his principles and act against his convictions. Under pressure as well from his mother, dowager queen Henrietta Maria (Diana Rigg, Mystery!), and misled by the self-serving machinations of his dissolute friend Lord Buckingham (Rupert Graves, The Forsyte Saga), Charles is increasingly frustrated by Parliament's encroachments upon his kingly rights.
His situation is complicated by the question of an heir. His marriage to drab little Portuguese princess Catherine (Shirley Henderson, Bridget Jones's Diary) does not produce any children. Despite the scheming of his mistress Barbara Villiers (Helen McCrory, Dead Gorgeous) to place his illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth (Christian Coulson), in line for the throne, Charles knows that his brother, James (Charlie Creed-Miles), is his rightful successor. But James is Catholic, an unforgivable sin in an English monarch. Under pressure from Parliament to remove James from the succession, Charles takes a stand. He dissolves Parliament and resolves to rule without them.
I will confess right away that I find the premise of The Last King: The Power and the Passion of Charles II baffling. I don't expect historical accuracy to be paramount in these joint ventures of A&E and the BBC, but I certainly don't expect them to change the fundamentals about the character at the center of the story. Moreover, why choose to make a film about Charles II at all, if one isn't going to take advantage of the most famous and entertaining parts of the man's reign—the colorful debauchery, the partying, the pageantry? What could have been an enjoyable, bawdy romp in the style of Tom Jones, a lighthearted look at the king's love life with his many toothsome mistresses while the straight arrows in Parliament shake their heads and fingers in exasperation, becomes instead—are you ready for this?—a Serious Political Drama.
That isn't to say that there isn't debauchery, only that even in the throes of passion the king always seems to have one eye on his country's well-being. In this whitewash job, the notorious rake is a man with a mission to do right by his country, who chafes at the compromises and contradictions inherent in the political life that prevent him from realizing his idealistic ambitions. Even when the film acknowledges the existence of his unpopular actions, it chalks them up to the influence of others. His famous desire for money, which led him to make war on Holland and sign a scandalous secret treaty with the French? Oh, that's because his mistresses keep running up huge debts, and he just can't stand to see them cry. Having Cromwell's corpse exhumed and strung up as a gesture of victory? His mother insisted. This film essentially uses the names and trappings of an era to provide a backdrop for a work of fiction, a kind of parallel universe of what-if speculation.
The very beginning of the film establishes that Charles is not going to be the self-indulgent carouser of the history books and that his story is going to be a sober one. As witness to his father's execution in what I fervently hope is a dream sequence, he is spattered with blood and scarred emotionally for the rest of his life. It's a scene of emotional trauma and gore lifted right out of Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, and it also establishes a relatively gritty, harsh visual style that deliberately counteracts what might be elements of epic grandeur. The filmmakers divulge this intention with pride in the making-of featurette, indicating that they wanted to confound the expectations of big-scale splendor that viewers bring to historical films. Again, I find this approach baffling. Producer Kate Harwood has noted that the restoration of the monarchy brought pageantry, color, and excitement to England—so why doesn't she want to show it to us? It seems as if the desire to prevent the historical setting from becoming stuffy, or pretty for its own sake, has led director Joe Wright too far in the other direction. His use of wobbly hand-held camera, excruciatingly prominent in the early part of the film, seems to be designed to evoke television crime dramas. It's a constant distraction and particularly irritating when the camera pushes in to capture the look on an actor's face when he is told dramatic news. Such moments feel as if an intrusive journalist has burst into the room: "So, you've just found out your wife has miscarried! How do you feel?"
At some moments, however, the naturalistic approach works in the film's favor, as when we see the twin depredations of the plague and the Great Fire of 1666. Stark visual landscapes of snow-laden corpses and smoky streets bathed in hellish red light pack an emotional wallop. I also admired the way the production designers only gradually allow the more excessive historical fashions to creep onto the screen, so that the characters have already become real and immediate to us by the time we see them in the really outrageous wigs and makeup. In considering the dramatic impact of the film, I must also give full credit to the able cast for convincingly bringing to life this crew of political connivers and victims. The strongest and scariest of these are two of the most important women in Charles's life: his mother, and longtime mistress Barbara Villiers. As the iron-jawed dowager, Diana Rigg has a venomous tongue and a bitter, unyielding nature. She browbeats her son mercilessly, as she does everyone else. As Villiers, McCrory has a different approach to getting her way with Charles, although she is not one whit more subtle. She employs hysteria and guilt to manipulate Charles into acceding to her demands time and again, yet maintains her hold on him through her powerful sexual allure. Exceptionally cunning and ruthless at using seduction (of practically anyone) to achieve her ambitions, she makes sure she has at least one backup plan—and man—at any given time. Even the king's 14-year-old son isn't safe from her. This is one dangerous woman, and McCrory's performance is awesome to behold.
Other standout performances include that by Ian McDiarmid (Star Wars: Episode I), who brings dignity and wisdom to the character of chief minister Sir Edward Hyde. As the amiably sleazy Buckingham, Rupert Graves is perfect, with his lazy smirk and insinuating eyes. He serves as an effective foil for the more introspective, serious-minded king. (Again, I find it astonishing to be applying these adjectives to Charles II.) As Charles, Sewell takes the character through a developmental arc from impatient, immature idealist to the sadder but wiser, even dignified, statesman. We don't see a lot of the monarch's famed charisma or common touch, but in the second half of the film he grows in poise, and we become acquainted with his capacity for compassion and loyalty. He also grows in strength and confidence, which is evident when he starts to confront those who have betrayed him. The growth of the character is also indicated by the progression of his most prominent mistresses: Scheming sexpot Barbara Villiers gives way to the fresh, innocent Frances Stewart, who thwarts his desires; then to his famous liaison with the cheeky, matter-of-fact actress, Nell Gwynn, brought to life with sweetness and warmth by Emma Pierson; and finally to his almost paternal relationship with a little bit of French fluff who thinks he doesn't realize she's a spy. Also significant is the changing nature of his relationship with his wife. As Catherine of Braganza, Henderson is one of the pleasant surprises of the film (as opposed to the many jarring ones). At first just the sad-funny little victim of political circumstance like so many royal brides before her, she emerges as a loyal, quietly insightful figure whose inconspicuous presence becomes as necessary to king as that of his various opulent mistresses. The progression in the relationship of this unlikely duo is one more window into the maturity Charles gains over the course of the film.
Unfortunately, the path to that maturity is often a jerky one. Structured in two parts, the film is dogged by an episodic structure, which may have been worsened by edits: The British version of the film clocks in at about four hours, which means that almost an hour of footage was cut from this release. These cuts would go some way toward explaining why the first half of the film sometimes seems like a choppy succession of similar scenes: politicians in shouting matches, lovers in wrestling matches, and various characters bursting into rooms to throw hissy fits. The second half of the film recovers to some extent from the episodic beginning and gains some unity of story through the unfolding of the Popish Plot. Likewise, this part seems to find the heart of the story and the characters, where the first half was more concerned with their political lives. The film throughout is also marred by staggering anachronisms, as when the queen suggests divorce because theirs is not a marriage of love (what royal marriage ever was?) and when Charles walks into the heart of the London fire in his desire to "help" his people. (How? I wondered. By beating at the flames with his long curly wig?) Risking his life over a sentimental gesture would not be productive, as even the dullest of monarchs would have recognized.
A&E rarely graces its films with many extras, and sure enough, there is only one: a half-hour featurette. Its title, "The Making of Charles II," would suggest that the title The Last King was an afterthought or, at least, was only employed in the American release of the film. (In fact, this title makes no sense until one views the featurette.) A fairly standard affair, the featurette includes the usual film clips and interviews: with the actors in the first half and with the people behind the scenes in the second. The director of this feature does attempt to art up (or tart up) the interviews by shooting from ultra-close or wildly skewed angles, but the result is simply absurd. Despite this aggravation, we gain some insight into the characters and the filmmakers' motives, such as they are, and it's particularly nice to see Sewell and Henderson talking together about their characters' relationship; it gives us a chance to see how the actors' interaction influenced that of the characters. Those who were disappointed by the scrupulously nudity-free sex scenes in the film will get their fix of nipples in the film clips included in the featurette (which leads me to suspect that this feature was designed for the British, not the American, DVD release).
As befits a brand-new film, audio and video throughout the film itself are handsome: Audio in particular makes effective use of stereo separation, and the video's only serious defect is the maddening camera work.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I've probably been a bit rough on this film's historical inaccuracies. Viewers with little knowledge of the era—and the English Restoration is hardly well known to Americans—will probably be fascinated by the picture it presents of an age rich in political and romantic intrigue. It is one of the film's strongest achievements that it shows us how intertwined politics and personal lives were in the 17th century. The bedroom scenes are every bit as political as the Parliamentary shouting matches: power struggles in which lovers manipulate each other to achieve position or forge alliances. The filmmakers' determination to take an intimate look at history does reward us with a heightened awareness of the individual longings and fears at the heart of lawmaking and kingship, and puts a human face on history. If the goal of the director was to make history immediate and compelling, he has succeeded—even if it's a history considerably revised and reinvented.
It's a lesson that the wise viewer probably doesn't need to have reiterated, but for the uninformed, I'll repeat: Do not go to A&E movies expecting historical accuracy. As a work of fantasy, however, this is an engrossing and handsomely produced piece. It has solid performances, although they are sometimes prone to the current tendency to substitute volume for emotion, and intriguing characters. Although not in the first rank of dramas, it is well worth a rental, and fans of the major stars should not be ashamed to add it to their film libraries—even though historians should be.
This court never enjoys sending monarchs to the block, and we can't gaze into Rufus Sewell's brooding eyes and cold-bloodedly condemn him. The court will let The Last King off with a stern warning to conform better to history in the future.
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: "The Making of Charles II"
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