With the recent onslaught of Brit history drams, many focusing on the late middle ages and Tudor period in particular, the results have been decidedly mixed. From Ray Winstone and Helen Mirren's brilliant portrayals of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I respectively, to 'The Tudors' television series, starring a Calvin Klein underwear model, the days of codpieces and chopping blocks is back in vogue for both the discerning and the less so.
When I saw the dvd of 'Princes in the Tower' at my local britophilia shop on sale I had my reservations, but (since it was on sale) I decided to add it to the library anyway. The cover photo hinted at good production value, even if the blurb and write-up on the back suggested 'mysteries of history' crude sensationalism.
The one thing that I didn't expect was a deftly handled piece of chambre drama. Based more on historical 'theory' than documented fact, it's court-room drama structure reminded me very much of The Return of Martin Guerre, sans toothless peasants and with a snappier wardrobe. The work wasn't without its flaws. The narrator, who is supposed to be Thomas More (who, onscreen, lurks at the edges of the frame through most of the film), provides a clumsy blow by blow account of the major events, usually citing what is already plainly obvious. As with the narrator in Blade runner, while adding nothing, it gives the sense that the filmmakers weren't sure if their audience could be trusted to figure things out for themselves. Additionally, the narration suggests the filmmakers were not entirely sure if what they were making was a documentary or a drama. A few times, when the drama was building in intensity, the narrator's voice would suddenly slip in, breaking the spell. A couple of attempts at humour were a bit clunky and heavy handed. Mostly they concerned bits with foreigners eating English food with disgust. And near the end the filmmakers couldn't help piling on the 'keep us guessing' plot turns.
These shortcomings, however, could not pull down the larger edifice, starting with the superb cast. Unlike 'The Tudors', which basically has one actor (Sam Neill) attempting to keep the entire boat afloat, there wasn't a single miscasting in Princes. Beginning with the (soon hopefully to be famous) Mark Umbers as the imposter, Perkin Warbeck, who dominates his every scene, even many of the ones he isn't in. The key to his appeal is not bombast or 'tics and tricks' method acting, but quiet and intelligent gravitas. You can practically see the thoughts forming in his head as he navigates his way out of one trap after the other. He's playing a dangerous game, one with his life and the kingdom at stake, and while he is clearly having fun with it, he is never flippant or coy. John Castle, as Dr. Argentine the prosecutor, is an elegant foil to Warbeck. Like all the best tacticians, Castle knows how to keep his emotional cards close until the right moment. Nadia Cameron-Blakely as Queen Elizabeth provides the film with its 'warm' moments. Sometimes perhaps even a little hot! If indeed this prisoner under interrogation is in fact her brother, the erotic attraction she shows towards him adds just one more dimension to those famous Tudor family values! Roger Hammond who as Bishop de Cambrair reminded me of Orson Welles doing Cardinal Woolsey, and Nicholas Rowe as the Spanish Ambassador, provide the comic relief as well as fill in, through their discussions, some of the back story. If they had been given a few more lines, the voice-over narration wouldn't have been needed at all. Paul Hilton does as much as one can with ol' stick-in-the-mud Henry VII. If you exclude the fact that Henry would never have attended the hearings at all, or that he really wants to know 'the truth' - also highly unlikely - Hilton gives a marvelous portrait of the conflicted, reluctant monarch. In one sublime scene he drops his drawers to produce a stool sample at his astrologer's request (wouldn't another leader perhaps want to attend to matters of state first?). So unsure and obsessed is he with his own standing that he looks for hints of how to act in his own bm's. But the top cudos, after Mark Umbers, goes to Sally Edwards as Margaret Beaufort. Hovering in the foreground through most of the film, this plot and treachery survivor leaps forward near the end in a startling tour-de-force, giving Grendel's mother a run for her money. There were moments in her performance where I forgot to keep breathing. And in the cumbersome wardrobe of a Medieval matriarch, she looks like a nun who might be hiding more than a few deadly weapons beneath her robes.
The filming itself was definitely budget, but the use of real locations gave it a little more of an edge than many costume pieces, which use studios to provide perfect lighting and camerawork. One of the cleverest effects was created in the flashbacks. Instead of the typical devices for suggesting the past, such as filming the scenes in black and white or in sepia tones, this production used still images, but images which looked like family snapshots taken in oil paint. These images provided some of the most haunting moments in the entire film.
Excepting the few stumbles mentioned earlier, 'Princes in the Tower' proved to be an unexpected delight. Filmed for Channel 4 Television in 2005, the dvd presents it in 16x9 anamorphic. The image is particularly grainy (especially in the darker shots), which might bother some, but to me suggests it might have been shot on actual film. I would say the image quality suffers because of this, but it is clearly in the intention of the filmmakers for it to look this way (suggesting a lost byway from mainstream history). The only bonus on the disc is an excerpt from the doc series 'The Tower' concerning the 'real' history of the princes, which lasts about twenty minutes.
If more historical dramas focused on these sort of 'little incidents' of history, instead of packing the better known moments with cgi extravaganzas and bodice ripping subplots that go nowhere, then maybe viewers would be engaged enough not to need a gander at Henry VIII in his skivvies.