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One of the most interesting - and flawed - historical dramas of the Seventies
on 1 February 2008
A valiant and not entirely successful attempt at a very English 'thinking-man's' epic, Cromwell is one of the most interesting of the historical dramas of the early seventies - and also one of the most flawed.
The first third of the film is very ropey indeed, with banal dialogue full of stilted clichés (the best lines are from history, not Ronald Hardwood or Ken Hughes), a very mannered performance Richard Harris and a clumsy dilution of history. It is only too easy to think that the English Civil War was fought because Cromwell didn't get on with the King's wife and that it was won and lost on the outcome of two battles.
The first battle scene is surprisingly weak - even the extras die unconvincingly - and it is not until its aftermath and the training of the New Model Army that the film really finds its feet and gets some fire in its belly. Hughes saves his visual imagination for the Battle of Naseby, (long since turned into a motorway by the decree of an ungrateful Parliament) and gives a surprisingly gripping account of its aftermath that puts some humanity into the history.
As a warts and all portrait, the wart is most definitely missing but Richard Harris' Cromwell is a complex and convincing character, always being forced into action rather than forcing events. Alec Guinness' Charles I is also a considered portrait, a mixture of integrity and pragmatic duplicity (recalling Parliament to raise finance for a war with the Scots, he ends up allied to his enemies against his own politicians) that is entirely understandable and on occasion even sympathetic.
The cast of supporting players for the most part prove rather less convincing. Nigel Stock is quietly impressive as the King's ultimately disillusioned confidante and Geoffrey Keen solidly reliable as ever as one of Cromwell's political allies; but while Timothy Dalton's Prince Rupert of the Rhine cuts a dash as he brings his pooch into battle on his arm, Patrick Wymark's Royal advisor is a parody worthy of Blackadder the Third - as Guinness points out, "You're too loud, Lord Stafford. It is most unpleasant to the ear."
The first hour has no driving force or feeling of the relentless rush towards an irreversible destiny: the force of history is almost totally absent. Similarly, it does not really gain that much in Scope. Geoffrey Unsworth's photography is ill-served by the production and costume design and Hughes lack of visual sense. Indeed, much of this first third is surprisingly slipshod. There are some very clumsy edits, both on sound and picture and Frank Cordell's often damaging score offers an object lesson in how not to score a film.
Where Miklos Rozsa and Dimitri Tiomkin integrated their grandiose style into the fabric of the drama, composer Frank Cordell points every action with sledgehammer subtlety with crescendos on every move and under every key line of dialogue. Atrociously spotted with no faith in the audience's intelligence, there is too much Benjamin Britten in Cordell's music, which is more of an opera than a film score. Some of the problem can be put down to the appalling mixing that results in the score overpowering a scene rather than underplaying it. Only in the preparations for battle does it gain the grim restraint it needs to work.
Not a great film - for that it really needed a better script, score and director - but, after a very bad start, a very good one.
Some of the opening credits are so finely printed that they are unreadable (as they are on the video) but otherwise the print quality is quite superb, as if taken from a brand new print, though lovers of the roadshow era will be disappointed that Columbia have removed the Overture and well-timed Intermission. And what happened to the original stereo? Tut tut. No extras either.