A British costume drama on the big screen – warms your heart just to think about it, doesn’t it? If there’s one thing the British film industry has always been able to do well, it’s historical drama. Keep the facts, make them entertaining and give them a contemporary twist – surely not that difficult, particularly with a period as straight-forwardly ‘them versus us’ as the English civil war. Well, it must be harder than you’d think on the evidence of this strangely over-earnest movie. Despite boasting stylish direction and moments of a brilliantly chilling performance from Tim Roth, the attempt to portray English history via two men’s lives seems nothing more than a bit camp.
Starting after Charles I’s (Rupert Everett) capture by the New Model Army, we are presented with the difficulties Oliver Cromwell (Tim Roth) and Sir Thomas Fairfax (Dougray Scott) face in trying to win the peace and reach a resolution with the King, not to mention with their own inner demons after a bloody and treacherous war. So, an ambitious story to try and tell, particularly considering director Mike Barker’s only other main work is the by-the-numbers thriller Best Laid Plans (2000). Along with DoP Eigil Bryld, Barker creates some stunning visual sequences, one of which gives the film its a shocking start, in which the camera travels over bloody piles of bodies following the Roundheads’ definitive victory at Naseby. For the opening half-hour, it’s a definite cinematic thrill, avoiding the usual tedium that comes from setting the historical scene. The camerawork is imaginative and exciting, disorientating the audience by remaining constantly on the move and switching perspectives at will.
It’s also great to see Tim Roth’s lupine snarl back on the big screen. Unfortunately, the Cromwell part which has been written for him is little more than an unfinished sketch, and in general the film is badly underwritten – too light on historical detail, and too heavy on the tics, foibles and stereotyped characteristics of the main characters. The film’s believability declines sharply as the story wears on. If the idea was to intentionally mimic the decline of Cromwell’s rule into anarchy, it might be impressive. However, what we get is Roth’s sneer and swagger initally being used to good effect, but by the end, his characterisation has degenerated into a bizarre stooped, ranting, sub-Richard III figure. Fancying itself as a Shakesperian tragedy about the relationship between two of the most driven men in English history, the film never really lives up to its ambition. The last three meetings between the two leads lack any emotional impact and deliver some of the most stilted dialogue I’ve seen for a long time.
This is partly due to Scott’s blank-canvas portrayal of Fairfax. It’s not that he’s terrible; he’s just not really there, and never makes the most of the psychological ambiguity of his role. On the contrary, his wife Anne (Olivia Williams) overcomes suspicions of being the token woman by being the crux on which the film’s main themes rest – of good intentions turned sour, the double-edges of idealism, and the importance of seizing the historical moment. She also provides the film’s best visual moment, spitting out the dull food she is given at the Cromwells’ dinner table as if to reject all the constraints of puritan dogma.
This is one of the few moments when the film really shows any desire to deal with the political ideas behind the civil war. It’s really more concerned with maintaining its forced homo-erotic subtext and modern parallels, and disguising its many historical inaccuracies. Making history into fantasy would be fine if you were being entertained – but in this case, you can only feel disappointment in a film whose early promise degenerates into another made-for-television costume drama.