Dir.: Tony Palmer; Cast: Simon Callow, Michael Ball, Rebecca Front, Lucy Speed, Nina Young, Robert Stephens, Corin Redgrave, Guy Henry; UK 1995, 158 min.
Director Tony Palmer excels in biopic dramas of composers Shostakovich (Testimony) and Rachmaninov, turns his talents to England’s foremost Baroque composer Henry ‘Harry’ Purcell (1659-1695). This is no mean feat as Purcell was a reclusive character and little is known of his origins. But he was nonetheless prolific, and conductor Sir John Eliot Gardener certainly does his music proud despite often verging on the pedantic.
Michael Ball leads a sterling British cast in the main role of Purcell in a biopic that works on two levels, scripted by John Osborne and Charles Wood. It unfolds in 1960s London where a British playwright is attempting to construct Purcell’s life with little to go by. England, My England touches on the composer’s involvement with Charles II (Callow) and Mary II (Front) and the subsequent monarchs James II (Henry) and William III (Redgrave). Lucy Speed acts the part of Neil Gwyn and there are such treasures as Murray Melvin, Corin Redgrave John Fortune and Bill Kenright, who has sadly only just left us.
John Osborne, who died before the film premiered, turns his venom on the “Little Englanders” – bankers and merchants – in the more contemporary sequences. One of the settings is the same dressing room Osborne enjoyed when he was a ‘mere’ actor, before Look back in Anger fame.
In England of the mind 1660s, freedom of speech was also an explosive topic, as it would continue to be three hundred years later. The first poet Laureate John Dryden (Stephens) has a word or two to say about while the bubonic plague ravished London, before the great fire destroyed most of the city. The later scenes were actually shot in Bulgaria, as part of the first Anglo-Bulgarian co-production.
Purcell’s life, as far as we know of it, was full of tragedy: his wife Frances (Young) was a prolific breeder before she succumbed to small pox, Henry went to an early grave with tuberculosis – other reports suggesting something more sinister. But the music dominates, and Dido’s lament from ‘When I am laid in earth’ from Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas” is deeply affecting.
Had Tony Palmer, now in his eighties and 65 directing credits under his belt, been born in France, he would be famous and probably rich. But sadly his canon is underexposed even though his knowledge of history, music and the arts is encyclopaedic and provides the rich textural references in this enjoyable biopic.
Palmer assisted Ken Russell in his early music portraits like Elgar (for BBC2). Most of Palmer’s features also have a striking visual tone, in this case provided by DoP Nic Knowland who contra-points the 1660 with the decades of the mid-19th century in stunning fashion. The script has so many ideas, comparing and contrasting historical themes, forming a rounded treatise on culture and politics, like many of Palmer’s works about England and the English. Alas, as the saying goes, the prophet in his own land…Here is the film in its full glory. AS
Also AVAILABLE ON DVD