The Last King - The Power and the Passion of Charles II
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Rufus Sewell, Diana Rigg, Rupert Graves. This compelling presentation reincarnates the life story of Great Britain's King Charles II nicknamed The Merry Monarch." His 25-year reign paints him as a passionate monarch who loved the arts and was a frivolous gambler. Very likely, he was also a sex addict, whose multiple mistresses bore all of his children. 2003/color/3 hrs., 8 min/NR/widescreen.
It's not always good to be king in this fascinating BBC/A&E historical drama, featuring a complex performance by Rufus Sewell as the exiled British monarch who returned to a volatile, post-Cromwell England in the 17th century. Pressed to forgive the enemies who killed his father, Charles II takes the throne and finds himself squeezed from all sides by vicious power brokers, his vengeful mother (Diana Rigg), a manipulative mistress (Helen McCrory), dubious advisers, a contrarian best friend (Rupert Graves), and his bewildered Portuguese wife (Shirley Henderson). Problems with the Plague and Charles's own, restless libido further complicate family and political dramas, but beneath the king's operatic tenure are visible strains of progressive government: Charles, after all, ushered in an early era of democracy in England. The Last King's sharp script never slows, but it's the cast's intense performances that bring royal intrigues to life. --Tom Keogh
- Behind-the-scenes featurette
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Top customer reviews
The film gets an overall top rating for the superb acting, sharp dialogue, excellent art direction and photography, and masterful costume, hair and makeup. This last comment may seem odd until you see the hairstyles of Catherine Braganza as she arrives from Portugal or the make-up and styling of Barbara Villiers, Castlemaine, as she finally is forced out of the court of Charles II. The directors wisely showed almost all the primary male actors both wearing their overly abundant wigs that were popular at the time and then with shaved head when they were in bed or exercising.
The cast does an excellent job with Rufus Sewell portraying Charles II as a multidimensional and complex character. Charles II was continually put into difficult positions, such as returning to England to take the throne but under the condition that he forgives those who beheaded his father. His mother, Queen Henrietta Maria, played by Diana Rigg, is a cold and rigid woman who's advice doomed her husband Charles I and now she wishes to impose her outdated ideology onto her eldest son. Charles resists her fanatical assertions of absolute power as a divine right and carefully navigates a new world of shared powers. Charles II was served for many years by the wise Sir Edward Hyde, a pragmatic realist. Hyde is played well by the seasoned actor Ian MacDiarmid. Hyde advises against declaring war against Holland whereas brass self serving Duke of Buckingham supports it. When the war turns out a disaster, Sir Edward Hyde must pay the price, a gross injustice. Yet as Charles II says, someone has to pay for the mistake and it can't be the king. He warns Sir Hyde to leave the country immediately before he is arrested. The relationship between Charles II and his best friend, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, is very complex for Buckingham has a highly manipulative personality style whereby he screams in the King's face in attempts to get his way while claiming that these emotional outbursts are proof of honesty and willingness to engage with the king as a human rather than as a power center. Rupert Graves plays the part of Buckingham well. But what do we make of a man who wishes to share women with the king to ensure an emotional bond? What do we make of a man whose advice to the King is always self-serving cloaked as 'honesty'? How does a man who manipulates behind the scenes and throws temper tantrums in public rise to such power with being born into privilege and capitalizing on the childhood friendship he has with Charles II. As sad and tragic as the exile of Sir Edward Hyde is the execution of innocent 70 year old Catholic, Sir Strafford, caught in an idiotic paranoid anti-Catholic political scheme and hoax. Charles II is forced to sign the execution papers for a loyal man that he knows to be innocent. The anti-Catholic paranoia ran deep in England through the reigns of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, James I, Charles I, Charles II, culminating in open conflict when James II is removed from the throne in favor of his protestant son-in-law and daughter, William and Mary. Eddie Marsaw plays the paranoid Titus Oates, a conspiracy theorists who would be perfect on contemporary talk radio with his wild exaggerations and lack of credible evidence for his claims.
Charles' relationship to Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, is very complex and is a central structure to this story. Both were probably sex addicts and yet years of sexual intimacy gave both Charles and Barbara considerable insights into each other's character. Helen McCrory plays Castlemaine in one of the best performances in the entire film. She had many illegitimate children with Charles II and plotted to undermine James II by sexually seducing and then inflating the ego of young James, Duke of Monmouth, the eldest illegitimate son of Charles II. Handsome Charlie Creed-Miles plays this foolish young man that is so easily influenced and refuses to be guided by the wise counsel of his father. The ability of Charles II to continually forgive those around him, such as his foolish brother James, Duke of York, or his illegitimate son Monmouth, or his old friend Buckingham, or his mistress, Castlemaine, is a key feature of the personality of Charles II. Charles eventually seems to develop a sense of benign indifference to those he loves, keeping them at an emotional distance and refraining from falling into their strategic plots and manipulations.
The 25 year reign of Charles II saw much drama including a disastrous war with Holland, a terrible plague in 1665, the burning of London in the great fire, and continual friction between protestant and catholic forces in his country. Despite all this drama, Charles was able to balance the power of parliament and the power of Louis XIV, the strongest king in Europe. In this regard Charles was masterful since efforts by the parliament to control him resulted in his bonding with Louis and maintaining loans and stipends from the French King. However, when the Catholic French camp became too overbearing, Charles would side with the protestant parliament. The film does a fairly good job of portraying this balance that Charles maintained to retain and use power.
It is in the relationship with Katherine of Braganza, played by Shirley Henderson, where the depth of the personality of the king is also observed. Their relationship goes through many stages but Katherine's strength of character eventually wins over the king who grows fonder of her with each passing year. She remains supportive of him in times in which he must make painful decisions, never trying to manipulate the situation for her own gains.
Overall the film gets 5 stars as does the super acting job of Rufus Sewell in the lead role. The original mini-series had one additional hour of film which has been cut in the A&E product, but none the less, this version is excellent and thought provoking entertainment.
Rufus Sewell as King Charles II is in virtually every scene and though the history books label him the "Merry Monarch", Sewell plays the king as a traumatized and perpetually stressed out monarch trying his best to keep his mother, his brother (James II, Duke of York), his bastard son (James, Duke of Monmouth), his friends (Duke of Buckingham and his cousin Lady Castlemaine), his mistresses (Nell Gwynne...), his Queen, Parliament, the French, the Dutch, and the mob happy. All while trying to recover those rights that Parliament stripped from his executed father.
Charles seems to know that the time of Kings is quickly passing but as a matter of family honor he never stops fighting for the divine right of kings.
The acting is superb even though history buffs might find some of the casting to be a little eccentric. Lady Castlmaine was supposedly the most desired woman of her day but the actress cast to play the role (Helen McCrory) is not exactly a knockout, in fact shes not much of a looker at all and is much too old. Also the Duke of Buckingham is played by Rupert Graves who is not formidable enough to handle the role. However some of the casting is inspired: Emma Pierson as Nell Gwynn is superb.
Some reviewers have stated that this mini series focuses on the kings mistresses and it does do a bit of that but I found there to be plenty of focus elsewhere as well. The question of the king's faith as well as the question of the king's succession seem to be the primary focus of television screenwriter Adrian Hodges script. And theres plenty of political intrigue as a series of advisers to the king rise and fall out of favor. The main lesson of King Charles II tenure seems to have been that the King cannot afford to have principles as Charles sells many of his most trusted advisers down the river whenever Parliament or the mob want someone to blame for the mismanagement of domestic or foreign affairs.
Sewell's star power probably makes us sympathize with the King even though as democrats our sympathies should be with Parliament. The Parliament is just not all that likable in this mini-series, however, and we kind of suspect that during this era England was probably better off with a King than it would have been if it were run by a divided and contentious Parliament who knew they needed a king (even if he was only a figurehead) to unite the people. Everyone in this mini-series is plotting something; it would seem everyone realizes that power is tenuous and no one stays in favor for long so you must take what you can get and run.
The king knows that after he is gone that Parliament will reverse everything that he has done and this and the fact that Hodges/Wright make it seem as though the King never really has any choice and that all of his major decisions are forced upon him makes us even more sympathetic with the king. It would seem even the king is a plotter but somehow since he is king and we suspect that he has Englands best interest at heart we forgive him for his covert dealings with France and his way of playing France against Holland and vice versa.
Charles II is definitely a Machiavellian who believes that whatever the King does is justified, but this is the very arrogance that the Parliamentarians cannot stand. It would seem that filmmaker Joe Wright (who also recently directed Keira Knightly in Pride and Prejudice) wanted to do everything in his power to show the king in a sympathetic light. If that is to be considered a noble deed then this mini-series deserves to be knighted.
I suspect that these mini-series that celebrate and romanticize order are especially attractive during times of political strife and division. Be that as it may Joe Wright definitely makes a mini-series that is exciting even if it is politically suspect. The recreation of London is very impressive. And the interior shots of Whitehall are magnificent. I only wish that there were a few characters that were representative of the common people and that we could have perhaps gleaned something of the common man's political point of view. But that is perhaps a small gripe in an otherwise imressive production.
NOTE For Parents: At the beginning of the movie Charles II witnesses his father's beheading. He's directly under the scaffold and the head drops towards his upturned face and the blood splashes all over Charles' II face. Yuck.
The DVD that I bought from Amazon had the entire movie on one disc--about one-third of it is unplayable, it skips and freezes! I checked it against Amazon's DVD troubleshooting tips and nothing worked.
I am EXTREMELY DISAPPOINTED with this purchase.