History as culturally superior subject

14th April 1995 at 01:00
The cinema has always had a liking for historical subjects, from the very early days when a French company calling itself Le Film d'Art specialised in scenes and tableaux of events such as the assassination of the Duc de Guise, and shortly afterwards when Italian cinema discovered the epic possibilities of the last days of Pompeii.

Underlying this is the assumption that history carries an aura of culture and education, lacking in comedy, romance or modern adventure. We have come some way since Le Film d'Art, but the assumption persists and helps to explain press reaction here to the failure of The Madness of King George to win any of the major Oscars. Not only (we seemed to be muttering) did the Americans insist on changing the title for fear that their ill-educated audiences would mistakenly think that The Madness of King George III was the third in a series, but they preferred to honour a film about a halfwit in a baseball cap.

What else can the deserving poor do, faced with the vulgar rich, except sneer? Cultural snobbery may be the only refuge left to European cinema. At least, here, it is to some extent justified by an exceptionally enjoyable, well-written, well-acted film - the credit for which, despite Helen Mirren's touching performance as Queen Charlotte, belongs chiefly to Alan Bennett and Nigel Hawthorne. Hawthorne not only occupies the centre of the action, but also has to convey the central significance that Bennett has chosen to give it.

At first, King George's behaviour may appear little more than an outcome of his situation: who would remain altogether sane surrounded by courtiers who are not supposed to look you in the eye and have to treat your most foolish request as binding? Bennett is not only good on the foibles of the English lower middle class; he can spot the absurdities of much grander folk.

Not hard, you might say. For a time the film seems to be heading for a Republican conclusion. As the King's eccentricity advances, he is made the target of a plot by the parliamentary opposition, in league with the foppish Prince of Wales, and the ideological sympathies are shifted in the opposite direction. A dotty king, a later Lear, we are told, should be tolerated and brought back to health as soon as possible.

By the end, we have a meditation on identity (which was the real George?) and a hymn to the Royals, in all their pomp, as a model to the nation. "We must be more of a family," George instructs his sons, as he steps out of his gilded coach in front of St Paul's.

Nothing here to worry King George's successors, who may have heaved sighs of relief. Bennett has produced a fine apology for one of their ancestors, who was clearly sixpence short of half-a-crown, and it can worthily stand alongside Herbert Wilcox's Victoria the Great (released in 1937, for the abdication crisis).

French directors have a different way with historical subjects. There is a cosiness about The Madness of King George that you don't find in either La Reine Margot or Le Colonel Chabert, though both deal with questions of power and identity. The first was released a few weeks ago, but is still showing in some cinemas. Adapted from Dumas' novel and set at the time of the Wars of Religion, it treats the St Bartholomew's Day massacre with such lack of cosiness as to lay itself open to the charge of gratuitous violence. This is history as seen by Quentin Tarantino.

Yves Angelo's Le Colonel Chabert, which opens shortly, is adapted from a novel by Balzac, a writer whose work has been strangely neglected by the cinema, in comparison with Zola, or even Flaubert and Stendhal. It is set under the Restoration, a period evoked with understated brilliance: Angelo's history is the opposite of "colourful", either in the literal or the metaphorical sense; yet you never doubt that these characters inhabit their sets and their costumes. The relative dullness of the surroundings is part of the story, which sees the Restoration as a period of base political manoeuvring after the glorious and tragic days of the Napoleonic Empire.

Chabert (Gerard Depardieu) is one of Napoleon's soldiers, reported killed at the Battle of Eylau. His wife has remarried to a man who is ashamed of her connection with the previous regime, and wants to divorce her in order to obtain a peerage.

At first, when Chabert returns from the dead, the family lawyer (Fabrice Luchini) thinks him an impostor, but gradually realises that he can exploit this walking corpse for his own ends. This is a powerful film, brilliantly played by the contrasting personalities of Depardieu and Luchini, and with not a hint of heritage in it.

Film Education has published a study guide to The Madness of King George and to Le Colonel Chabert - its first venture into the field of modern languages.

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