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, excelling in portraits of composers like Shostakovich (Testimony), turns his talents to England’s foremost Baroque composer Henry ‘Harry’ Purcell (1659-1695) with a script by This is no mean feat as Purcell was a reclusive character – and little is known of his origins. But he was a prolific composer, and conductor Sir John Eliot Gardener certainly does his music despite his verging on the pedantic.
The narrative works on two levels touching on Purcell’s involvement with Charles II (Callow) and Mary II (Front) of Purcell (Ball) and the subsequent monarchs James II (Henry) and William III (Redgrave), Callow doubles up with girlfriend Barbara (Speed who also acts the part of Neil Gwyn) in London anno 1960, to produce and direct G.B. Shaw’s “Good King Charles’s Golden Days” at the Royal Court Theatre. 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 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 eighty years old and with 65 directional credits between him, been born in France, he would be famous and probably quite wealthy. His knowledge of history, music and the arts is encyclopaedic. Most of his features (he assisted Ken Russell in the latters early music portraits like Elgar for BBC2), 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…AS
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