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The Girl of Your Dreams (1998) was an engaging if unmemorable historical dramedy about the cinematic struggles of a troupe of actors in which Penelope Cruz’s talents stood out. And you could say much the same about The Queen of Spain, Fernando Trueba’s 18-years-later follow-up. Though the setting has changed from Nazi Germany to 1950s Spain, at the height of Franco’s power, this second, altogether less winsome iteration features many of the same actors, a similar range of characters and caricatures and indeed a not dissimilar spring-the-prisoner storyline, but all at the service of a lazy script which is anything but a jewel in Trueba’s crown.
Queen is the sort of project which marketing teams like to talk about as “classic” while secretly knowing that it’s just old-fashioned. Few concessions have been made to the passage of time: Chino Darin apart, there are no new faces to bring the next generation on board, the sense of humor often seems locked in a time-warp and though, this being a Fernando Trueba movie, there’s plenty of irony, too little of it is sharp-edged. Nothing new here, then — but given that the director’s previous historical dramedy outing before Dreams was Belle Epoque (1992), which won him an Oscar, it was probably worth giving him another shot.
The credits montage makes for a very promising start, concisely condensing background information about the various characters. Macarena Granada (Cruz), like the actress herself, has become a big Hollywood star in the years following Dreams, but director Blas Fontiveros (vet Antonio Resines) has followed the opposite trajectory, including time spent for his political beliefs in the Mauthausen concentration camp from which we see him forlornly staring out in an old black-and-white photo.
All this suggests a far darker and more complex film than we get, though early scenes maintain the promise, as a credibly downbeat, browbeaten Blas returns to Madrid and reintroduces himself to the old gang — and to his wife Ana (Ana Belen), who wants nothing to do with him and who promptly disappears from a story which obviously didn’t need her anyway. The problems start here, since the old gang, all back in place all these years later, are exactly the same bunch of caricatures as they were all those years ago, apart from Leo (Darin), a sexy set worker who becomes Macarena’s love interest.
We are reintroduced, among others, to preening, camp art director Castillo (Santiago Segura, a good comedian but an actor with a limited range), grande dame actress and recovered alcoholic Rosa Rosales (Rosa Maria Sarda) and Spanish machista Julian Torralba (Jorge Sanz, happily delivering a career-best comic performance). The German stereotypes of Dreams are here swapped for American stereotypes, including the growling, eye-patched John Ford-like director John Scott (a distinguished, 86-year old Clive Revill), who can only wake up long enough to bark “action”; gay leading man Gary Jones (Cary Elwes); and a producer called Spiegelmann (played by Mexican director Arturo Ripstein), whose 192nd movie The Queen of Spain will be. (Another movie director on cameo here is A Monster Calls helmer Juan Antonia Bayona, playing a projectionist.)
They’ve all come together to chaotically shoot a film about Isabella the Catholic, to be played by Granada. At the Americans’ request Fontiveros takes over as director, but no sooner has the shoot started than Fontiveros is arrested and taken away to work on building Franco’s Valley of the Fallen mausoleum and monument, as political prisoners at the time were forced to. At this point, the film devolves into undistinguished, interminable farce. The general air of cobwebs is enhanced by the regular use of outmoded iris transitions between scenes, which may be a directorial nod at the the era under consideration, but which for the viewer is just alienating.
One of the most unsettling things about Queen is how awkwardly it tackles all this painful, historical material: it’s as though Trueba’s script knows that homage must be paid to it, but it feels shoehorned in. One scene has political prisoner Ramon (Ramon Barea) being killed whilst at work on building the monument; the death should have been Fontiveros’. But Ramon is never mentioned again, and even Blas expresses no regret at his colleague’s death, since Trueba feels the need to press on to the next farce scene. Belle Epoque incorporated its history with far more elegance.
But Trueba is always a clever film director, and the cleverness, though sometimes well-concealed, is still there, both in the film’s multiple small homages to the art of filmmaking (and the difficulties of doing so under the kiss-censoring Franco) and in its satirical vision of Spain, a country in which, as one character says, “everyone is guilty.” General Franco himself, played by shameless comic Carlos Areces, turns up in the final reels, made by his adoration of Macarena into a surprisingly benign comic figure, just as Goebbels was in Dreams. He comes over as a slightly pathetic little man, put in his place by Macarena in a final dialogue which expresses what a lot of Spaniards would love to have expressed back in the day — thus in its final scenes the film regains a little of the depth and interest of its opening.
Within the limits of the script, the performances are fine. As she did with Dreams, Cruz effortlessly makes the film her own with her supercharged portrayal of the swaggering, rebellious and still very beautiful Macarena — though this time, there’s no musical set piece of the kind which in Dreams set the audience, and Josef Goebbels, alight. A running gag involving the way that Torralba is able to make himself cry onscreen devolves into crude, retro humor and ends with a joke about — yes — Errol Flynn’s manhood, but Sanz carries it well. Visually, the film is very attractive, with careful attention to period detail and some fine, crisply-hued location shots in the mountain scenery around Madrid supplied by DP Jose Luis Alcaine, an Almodovar regular.
For the record, at home, the pic’s release was blighted by press declarations Trueba made last year about not feeling Spanish (precisely whilst receiving a National Cinema Award). In a sad echo of the divisive period the film is about, his comments led to a right-wing social media campaign seeking a boycott of Queen, which some say impacted negatively on its box-office performance; others believe that the film did the job just fine on its own.
Production company: Fernando Trueba PC, Atresmedia Cine
Cast: Penelope Cruz, Antonio Resines, Neus Asensi, Ana Belen, Javier Camara, Chino Darin, Loles Leon, Arturo Ripstein, Jorge Sanz, Rosa María Sarda, Santiago Segura, Cary Elwes, Clive Revill, Mandy Patinkin, Carlos Areces
Director-screenwriter: Fernando Trueba
Producers: Penelope Cruz, Mercedes Gamero, MIkel Lejarza
Executive producers: Kirk D’Amico, Audrey Delaney, Anne Deluz, Kevin D. Forester, Cristina Huete, Rosa Perez
Director of photography: Jose Luis Alcaine
Production designer: Juan Pedro de Gaspar, Hedvig KIraly
Costume designer: Lala Huete
Editor: Marta Velasco
Composer: Zbigniew Preisner
Sales: Myriad Pictures
Not rated, 128 minutes
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