LA CONJURA DE EL ESCORIAL (2008)
Running Time: 128 mins. Rating: xx Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: NR
Director: Antonio del Real
Language: English, Spanish w/English subtitles
Distributor: Sony Pictures (Spain)
Cast: Jason Isaacs, Julia Ormond, Jürgen Prochnow, Joaquim de Almeida
Accurate history of Philip ll Spain in case anybody cares.
Almost every historical movie is mostly movie and very little history. The fault of LA CONJURA DE EL ESCORIAL is that for once it might be too much history. The action takes place in the court of Spain’s King Philip ll. The year is 1578 and the crisis is about the war against the rebels, Protestant supporters of William of Orange in the Netherlands. There are two views at the court. The aging Duke of Alba, a blunt military man, would go to all out war, and the young and progressive Prime Minister, Antonio Perez (Jason Isaacs), objects to the expense of the war and argues for a negotiated settlement.
The Spanish regent in the Netherlands was Don Juan of Austria, the hero of Lepanto and bastard of Charles V and Philips’ half brother. Philip is worried that Don Juan might be too ambitious so Perez sends Juan de Escobedo (Joaquim de Almeida) to be Don Juan’s secretary. Sort of a plant but Escobedo turned and became Don Juan’s man. This is all about Escobedo. He returns to Madrid and becomes aware that Perez has been treacherous, maybe even treasonous, manipulating the situation to his own advantage, sowing doubt in the king’s mind against Don Juan. Perez’s lover/co-conspirator is the Princess of Eboli, (Julia Ormond) complete with eye patch. Escobedo comes into possession of papers proving their disloyalty and they plot his murder. After poisoning fails they have him set upon in the streets and murdered on Easter Monday 1578. The rest of the film is rather like Costa-Gavras’ Z, as the plot is uncovered as a 16th century police procedural.
Though it’s a Spanish film, I saw the film dubbed into English with Spanish subtitles and the voices were so similar and the men period properly bearded that it took a couple of minutes to distinguish the protagonists. The film is just straight ahead history. There is sub-plot of a doomed love between a constable (Jürgen Porchnow) and a poor morisco girl (Blanca Jara). Escobedo was poisoned three times but in the film there is only one attempt. Just necessary concision. There is a rather desultory sword fight, routine stuff. Other than that one could write a tolerable term paper from having seen the film.
It could be interesting if you’re interested in history. However there are no good looking ex- models in their 20s with great cheekbones, David Bowie on the soundtrack, ‘splosions , Perseus not marrying Andromeda and other anachronisms, so it will not, as they say, find its audience. TORA TORA TORA the story of Pearl Harbor told from both points of view and tirelessly researched and recreated was, sorry, a bomb at the box office. The sequel MIDWAY, which made use of a lot of left over material and was full of soap opera conventions watered down and sentimentalized history, made money at the box office. Several years ago I saw a Czech film from the socialist period about the Munich Crisis of 1938. It was an education but, again, not something the general public could be interested in. However, I am now fully conversant with the minutia of the period. This role, the historical film, the accurate historical film, has been supplanted by the widespread contemporary technique in documentaries of recreation. Documentaries now have cast lists, props and costumes.
Once upon a time, in fact from the very beginning of the feature film, the historical costume picture was a staple of the film industry. These were basically fiction films like say The Three Musketeers. It is a rarity today, the challenge being to contemporize everything for a young audience, but in truth, an historical film which was both excitingly cinematic and accurate is a promise which the cinema has left unachieved except in rare instances like THE PIANIST. British war movies of the 50s and 60s tended to be non-sensational and accurate. But that’s what they call the living past. The remote past is anybody’s game. INGLORIOUS BASTERDS played as fast and loose with recent history as a gladiator or crusades picture do without drawing attention to themselves. We know how WW2 turned out but how many know how the 3rd Crusade ended? The pity is that film is the perfect medium to recreate history and history is itself more exciting than the dull assemblies of clichés and standardized stories that attempt to pander to a narrow-minded audience.
King Philip is the king because we are told he is. His behavior does not categorize him as cruel, generous, greedy, brave or any other comfortable stereotype. People tend to want to easily pigeonhole characters to facilitate involvement in the story. A rooting element its called, usually based on prejudice and preconceived ideas. A drama containing Richard The Lion Heart and Philip Augustus of France will play to the audiences’ notion of Richard as a hale fellow, honest, fair, magnanimous, open and brave while Philip is sly, untrustworthy, cowardly etc. Find a jolly, open-faced actor for Richard and a mean, narrow faced one for Philip. Let the audience figure it out from there. In this picture Philip II is merely a man, a clever and experienced one at that, but merely a man. He is capable of errors but he doesn’t go around in a perpetual temper tantrum as movie kings so often do.
The version I saw was 128 minutes, but there is a 150-minute version too. I think they cut out some courtroom action as well a fuller explanation of Perez’ and Eboli’s motivation for their plot.
Unfortunately, while the story of LA CONJURA DEL EL ESCORIAL is faultlessly presented, it is nothing that would interest a contemporary audience in the first place. Even tarted up it would be like colorizing an old movie no one is really interested in anyway. For the history student only lightly familiar with the period and events, it’s an education.
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