We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

"The market on queens": _The Last King_ · 14 June 07

Dear Anne,

Around the time Helen Mirren won the Oscar for Best Acress for her portrayal of Elizabeth II (The Queen), having portrayed Elizabeth I (with Jeremy Irons as her Leicester, and Hugh Dancy as Devereux) the year before, Maggie Smith quipped of her and Judi Dench, “Between them, they’ve cornered the market on queens”, and she had to make do with mere duchesses.

Well, not quite. Diana Rigg was Queen Henrietta Maria and Shirley Henderson (Marie Melmotte in the BBC The Way We Live Now), Catherine of Braganza, in what seems to be an intelligent and entertaining costume drama, Charles II: The Power and the Passion and Cate Blanchett Elizabeth I in two different movies about Elizabeth I made 11 years apart.

Until the later 20th century in myth and story Elizabeth I was presented as a sexually-frustrated jealous Machiavellian with Mary Queen of Scots playing the compensatory glamorized beautiful victim-romantic heroine women were assumed to identify with. No more.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. My posting was prompted by an interesting discussion I had with Sam Cahill on ECW:

    “I’m interested in what the list thinks of the A&E The Last King, a film about Charles II. Specifically, the initial focus on Castlemaine and then the viewer sharing the perspective of Catharine of Braganza when she’s first introduced. I’m not sure what I think of it, but then I’ve never come across a movie about the
    Restoration that I was particularly happy with.

    Elinor    Jun 15, 11:18am    #
  2. Sam mentioned the film, The Last King the other day and I didn’t reply because I’d never heard of it. Today I was perusing a catalogue of better films, and came across a reference to it. Rufus Sewell, Diana Rigg, Martin Turner, Ian McDiarmid (who I saw in a great play by Brian Friel 2 years ago in NYC, also with Fiennes & Jones) and other actors were listed in it. Joe Wright who did the 2005 P&P (an interesting melancholy film which made sense of Mr and Mrs Bennet’s relationship for real) is the director; Adrian Hodges who did the script (if I’m not misremembering) for the 2007 Persuasion did the script here.

    I was wondering if someone else had seen it beside Sam and could comment. Could Sam tell us a little more.


    The catalogue is one which includes Sturridge and Sobel’s Longitude which I’m screening for my students this summer.

    Elinor    Jun 15, 11:18am    #
  3. "Thanks, Ellen!

    I had a VHS copy of it but have misplaced it so it’s been a bit of time since I’ve seen it.

    If I’m remembering the opening scene correctly it is from Charles II’s perspective underneath the scaffold as his father is beheaded. It addresses his trauma and partially accounts for his dependency on Castlemaine, who is portrayed as a grasping, highly manipulative and unscrupulous woman who uses men for power, money, and sex (a darker Lydia all grown up!). Diana Rigg as Charles II’s hardened and unforgiving mother is used as the explanation for his lifelong troubles with women (Catherine of Braganza says at the end that what Charles yearned for all his life was a tender mother). We get a similar shared perspective (the audience sees the English court through her eyes just as we saw the execution from Charles’s perspective) when we first meet Catherine. Her plight (how could a pious Catholic girl in a foreign country possibly compete with Castlemaine, with her hooks already sunk into Charles?) and infertility are rendered truly poignantly. It breaks your heart to look at the wedding night scene between her and Charles, her inability to speak English and heartfelt attempts at communication, his utter dissatisfaction with her as a lover, and his return to the pleasures of Castlemaine, who of course milks it for all its worth while seducing his son on the side.

    The main protagonist is really Catherine, who loves Charles and is loyal to him even while Castlemaine is tormenting her with her inability to provide a legitimate heir. Charles had so many illegitimate children and Castlemaine makes sure Catherine knows she has given the king what his wife couldn’t. Charles is a sympathetic character, but his perspective is not the only major one we see. There is a lot of female influence on his life, both positively and negatively. An interesting comment on how much domestic situations and gender relations can affect the fate of nations.

    Elinor    Jun 15, 11:20am    #
  4. Dear Sam,

    I assume it’s not as misogynistic as you make it sound :). It seems the evil people are these grasping powerful women and the good woman is the chaste submissive relatively sexless one :)

    I wish I could rent these things here where I live in the US. My local blockbusters don’t carry good films any more (just the most recent whatever they are and continual trash with a lot of unexamined supposed “classics”); the one good video store near me has as part of its policy no TV mini-series.

    I do like Rufus Sewell and could just watch him for hours, and noticed the cast is excellent as well as an interesting director and powerful sensitive screenplay writer.

    Elinor    Jun 15, 11:21am    #
  5. “Dear Ellen,

    Well, certainly the portrayal of Charles’s mistresses (particularly Castlemaine)and mother are extremely negative. But his favorite sister and wife (and I realized after I sent it that I neglected to mention some important points of Charles and Catherine’s sex life after the wedding night trauma) are seen as the bright shining lights of his life. The build up to the consummation is very interesting, especially in light of your observations on men looking out of windows at women in films (when this is usually a position occupied by women).

    Charles sees his wife (dressed as a boy, as far as I can tell) in a relaxed mode (unlike the highly formal dress of her previous Portuguese costume) playing with a dog in the garden, very much like Darcy in the 1995 “Pride and Prejudice.” Her hair is down and you start to realize that he feels some tenderness for her, though he gravitates sexually to dominant women who are, unfortunately, very bad influences on him. The power dynamic is deeply problematic, but I wouldn’t call it misogynistic per se just because there are strong women who are also destructive. Catherine is very strong and sexually interested in Charles and she seems to enjoy their lovemaking; it’s portrayed as a failing in him that he exposes her so cruelly to the scorn of someone like Castlemaine.

    There are plenty of bad male characters, too.

    I guess it is the case that politically powerful women are portrayed in a negative light in “The Last King”; but is that because they are powerful, or because they abuse that power? Powerful women can also be tender. I hate to think of anyone, male or female, who can control things politically not having some tenderness of human feeling.

    If there is any misogyny portrayed in the movie it’s the political system that measures women’s dignity and worth as human beings in terms of their sexuality and fertility. And I think putting one’s wife in the position Charles II did (flaunting fertile mistresses in front of her, basically) suggests a subconscious misogyny on his part.

    Elinor    Jun 15, 11:22am    #
  6. Dear Sam,

    Very interesting. Thank you. As with novels, there are often several different points of view mingling in a movie, and some are more subtle and the others more obvious. Oftentimes the archetypal or broad approach (what is popular or widely perceived) is the more conservative, and often downright reactionary, while a subtler attention to detail and nuance as well as sheerly paying attention and thinking can yield another not just alternative but opposing discourse. I’ll bet you have been this kind of opposition again and again when you teach students and see how they react to or understand assigned novels.

    Films convey their meaning by their art too, and the problem we have when we discuss films (though that’s what makes them so easy to discuss and encourages more discussion of films than one sees of books), is what is talked about is literal content, not what’s conveyed by the stills, mise-en-scene, juxtaposition, allusions.

    In the case of historical films there is another problem set up: if a film really presents itself as historically accurate, then we are driven to ask if the real Charles was at all the way the film-makers portray. Again many, even most film-makers will insinuate their films are historically accurate at the same time as they insinuate they are producing artistic fantasies which speak to our problems today. Like historical novels, historical films are written for today’s audiences and present today’s problems: they get away with all sorts of things as they are in costume so the material is distanced. I wonder if the portrayal of women that you suggest isn’t about womens’ conflicts and experiences today. (This is quite apart from the attempt to sell by producing violence and sexual vicarious experience onscreen and very attractive dream-inducing stars to boot).

    I’ve read repeatedly in memoirs and realistic novels of the era that men did invite their mistresses to eat at the dinner table where their wives were (and gave them bedrooms in their houses to stay too). The wives were expected to endure it; this was particularly prevalent in the highest reaches of the courts as the kings were all powerful and thought they offered so much to whoever that they could get away with anything.

    Elinor    Jun 15, 11:23am    #
  7. From Sam:

    “Oh, the perils of selective memory…
    I forgot the fabulous characterization of Nell Gwyn! She’s completely sexually frank, an intelligent and astute businesswoman, and she takes Castlemaine down several pegs. She is another bright shining light for Charles (if not for Catherine).

    My mind’s eye is not recalling any scenes in which these two very different but very sympathetic women characters (Catherine and Nell) met … but they are an interesting pair for a comparison and contrast of strong, positively-portrayed women in The Last King.

    Elinor    Jun 15, 11:24am    #
  8. I thought I’d add to Sam’s comments that Nell Gwyn has assumed mythic status in legendary history. As with Jane Austen, books and novels are perpetually published about her, and she appears in countless plays and movies. In each era, “she” seems to change character in accordance with how that era wants to see virtue and vice. A recent much praised biography of Austen presents her as wanting to be an astute businesswoman and succeeding too (natch) within the limits her family’s norms allowed her.

    One last note (sorry for the scatter shot approach): I surmize I’d enjoy the movie very much and find it fascinating to watch qua movie. Last night I watched the first 70 minutes of Longitude with two classes and just about everyone in the room was mesmerized by the film. Made by the same people who brought us the 1995 P&P and this Last King. The production company, who is the producers, costume and production design, cinematographer, and budget are enormously important, as well as where in technological advancement the film has appeared.

    Elinor    Jun 15, 11:25am    #
  9. From Sam:

    “Sorry about the delayed response—yes, I didn’t mean to mischaracterize the portrayal of Charles II’s having mistresses at court. My understanding is, as you said, that mistresses were very accepted and often powerful members of the royal circle and wives were expected to put up with it. And the film certainly didn’t, as far as I can tell, portray Charles as a misogynist for doing this. The emotional consequences to women, especially wives, of this system are made apparent in the film, but I should clarify that Charles is portrayed as a sympathetic character and not a woman-hater.”
    Elinor    Jun 20, 11:00pm    #

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