Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Richard III's Remains Discovered

The DNA of a Canadian woman named Joy Ibsen has helped to identify the skeletal remains discovered in a car park in England as those of Richard III.  A British genealogical researcher named John Ashdown-Hill managed to trace DNA for 15 generations from Richard's sister Anne of York to the Ibsens in Canada.

Richard was killed in battle in 1485 and was interred beneath the church of Greyfriars in Leicester.  The church was destroyed during the Reformation in the 16th century and its location was eventually forgotten. Last autumn, archaeologists narrowed their search down to a car park which was the only large open space in the area.  There, they discovered a hurriedly interred skeleton.  The deceased had suffered ten injuries, two of which were potentially fatal skull injuries.

Richard's face has been reconstructed and it displays features very similar to portraits of the monarch painted through the ages.  In the photo with the reconstruction is Joy Ibsen's son, Michael, whose DNA helped establish Richard's identity.

The body will be re-interred under the auspices of the Richard III Society.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in The Queen (2006)

Sylvia Sims played the Queen Mother (Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon) in Stephen Frears' The Queen.

Sims long and successful career began in the 1950s and though she has played politicians like Margaret Thatcher, this was her first role as a monarch on film.

I think she did a great job with the role.  She conveyed a sense of fun while still managing to be quite conservative.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006)

Helen Mirren deservedly won both an Oscar and a BAFTA for best actress for playing Her Majesty Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears' The Queen.  In 2005, Mirren played Elizabeth I in a wonderful HBO mini-series.

Beyond a certain resemblance to the Queen, Mirren brings four decades of experience with creating believable and memorable characters to the screen.  She gives the Queen an incredible sense of focus and gravity which helps to make her a person rather than a character.

Some people avoided this film, thinking it might be in some ways inflammatory but I think the exact opposite is true.  Frears does a superb job remaining respectful to all the Royals, including Princess Diana. The film makes clever use of archival news footage that is intended to represent the public's side of the story.  The wonderful scripted scenes in the film are utterly believable.  It's like getting a glimpse into the private rooms of the Royal Family.  I think this is all the more moving for those of us who lived through the events of the film.

I think the film provides us with a great portrait of a living leader.  The audience is sympathetic to the historical shifts that have taken place during the Queen's long reign.  As happened in life, we cannot help but forgive the Queen any perceived slights.  We respect her and by the end come to embrace and understand her role more than ever before.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee

Today we celebrate Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee.  60 years ago today, Her Majesty ascended to the throne of England.

Here in Canada, and elsewhere in the Commonwealth, the Jubilee will be celebrated all year long with various royal visits and events.

Elizabeth II's reign is the second longest of any British monarch (second to Queen Victoria).

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

The Adventures of Robin Hood is perhaps the most famous collaboration between director Michael Curtiz and star Errol Flynn, however, Curtiz was not the original director and Flynn was disappointed when Warner Bros. hired Curtiz.  William Keighley was the original director but was replaced when the studio felt the action scenes were lacking.  Curtiz, well-known for his direction of action films, was the logical choice despite Flynn's dislike of Curtiz's directing style.  At the time, this was Warner's most expensive film with a budget of $2 million.  The investment paid off.  Robin Hood was nominated for four Academy Awards including best picture.  It won three (art direction, film editing, original score).

The monarch we spend the most time with in this film is John Lackland, later King John.  John was a Plantagenet, son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane.  He was born on Christmas Eve 1166.  He was the youngest of five sons and so never expected to rule.  However, when Princes William, Henry and Geoffrey died young and Richard I became king in 1189, John became potential heir to the throne.  This film takes place after Richard I has left to command the Third Crusade, leaving Chancellor Longchamps as regent.  When the film opens, John has already outmaneuvered Longchamps and installed himself as regent.

Prince John is played by the great Claude Rains (1889-1967).  Rains would go on to play other royal characters: Napoleon III (twice), Julius Caesar and the biblical King Herod.  In addition to acting, Rains was also highly sought as an acting teacher.  Among his students were Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, who would themselves go on to play many monarchs.

John is often painted as a detestable villain (especially in re-tellings of the Robin Hood legend) but history records that he was a strong general and an able administrator.  He did, however, have some very unpleasant personal characteristics which made him an unpopular king.  He was reportedly arrogant and petty and also dangerously cruel.  I think Rains does a good job of capturing John's vanity and arrogance in this performance.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Phillip II in The Sea Hawk (1940)

The Sea Hawk is a 1940 film directed by Michael Curtiz.  It was the tenth collaboration between Curtiz and Errol Flynn.  Though the principal royal presence in the film is Flora Robson as Elizabeth I, Phillip the II of Spain is always sort of looming in the background.  He is played by Montagu Love, who also co-starred with Flynn in the 1938 Curtiz film The Adventures of Robin Hood.

The film opens with Phillip II discussing his plans for world domination with his advisors.  The film takes place in the year before the Spanish Armada's attack on England.  Phillip is constructing the most powerful fleet in the world and though he makes overtures of friendship towards England, he secretly plans to take the island as part of the Spanish Empire.

Phillip II was the son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles the V and so of the House of Habsburg.  Phillip commissioned many portraits of himself during his reign so we have a very strong idea of his appearance. The filmmakers seem to have done a great job in casting Love in the role.  The resemblance is clear from this 1565 portrait by Sofonisba Anguissola.

Montagu Love was born in 1880 and began his career as a field artist and cartoonist for newspapers.  His battlefield drawings from the Boer War gained him much popularity but instead of continuing as an artist he decided to become an actor.  He re-located to the US in 1918 and made several appearances on Broadway before beginning a successful acting career in silent films.  He starred in nearly 100 silent films and was often a favourite villain.

Phillip II was not the first royal that Love played.  Perhaps his most famous monarch was Henry VIII in 1937's The Prince and the Pauper (again alongside Errol Flynn).  Love died at the age of 63 in 1943 leaving behind a very impressive body of work.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Elizabeth I in The Sea Hawk (1940)

The Sea Hawk is a wonderful Michael Curtiz film from 1940.  It stars Errol Flynn as Captain Geoffrey Thorpe and Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth I.  This was the tenth collaboration between Curtiz and Flynn who seemed to be box office magic for Warner Bros.  The Sea Hawk is a 1915 novel by Rafael Sabatini.  It had previously been adapted for a silent film in 1924.  While Curtiz's film was originally to have been faithful to the novel, the story was eventually completely changed.  It became a film inspired by the life of Sir Francis Drake.

The story takes place in the year or so leading up to the attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588.  This would place Elizabeth I in her mid 50s but Robson was only 38 years old.  The difference is only one of many historical inaccuracies that do not affect the overall quality of the film.

This is actually the second time Robson played Elizabeth.  She first played the role in Fire Over England (1937) to great acclaim.  In 1934, Robson had played another monarch, Empress Elisabeth in The Rise of Catherine the Great.

Robson began her acting career in the theatre.  She played roles like Lady Macbeth both at the Old Vic and on Broadway.  In 1960, Robson was created Dame of the Order of the British Empire for her contributions and services to drama.

While there is sometimes a tendency for actors to play monarchs very stiffly and emotionless, Robson brings life to Elizabeth I by allowing her a sense of humour. She reassures us that Elizabeth is a human and a woman.  She uses sarcasm and flirts with Thorpe but never lets us forget that she is the ruler of England and is not to be questioned.

Not only is her character a commander but Robson manages to take command over the entire film.  As wonderful as Flynn is, Robson steals every scene she is in.  She is quite captivating--not unlike how Elizabeth I is said to have been.

Robson is presented in fabulous Elizabethan gowns and jewellery designed by Orry-Kelly.  Kelly designed the wardrobe for over 290 films from 1932 through 1963.

At the end of the film, Elizabeth gives a rousing speech to prepare her country for an attack by the Spanish Armada.  She tells her countrymen that the world cannot belong to any one man and that it is the duty of all free men to defend liberty.  This is no doubt meant to have a double meaning as England was already struggling through WWI at the time and the Allies were fighting for liberty from one man: Hitler.

Dame Flora Robson had a long and varied career that only ended with her premature death from cancer in 1984.  I cannot help but notice that she shares a strong resemblance with Helen Mirren (who would play Elizabeth I some 65 years later in an HBO mini series).