Sofia's Marie: A Royal Pain

Marie Antoinette was loudly booed in Cannes. Well, why not? Who is Sofia Coppola to deliver a revisionist view of the French Revolution—to the French? Some critics chalked it up to typical French mal élevé. But now that this gilded fleur-de-lis has landed with a 10-ton thud at the New York Film Festival (with a commercial run on Oct. 20), I think the French reception was positively bienfaisant. Lavish to look at but boring, empty, irrelevant and historically sketchy enough to be a footnote, this regurgitation of the fanciful Antonia Fraser book is the hysterical work of a grown woman on hallucinogens, playing with 18th-century Barbie dolls of spun-sugar wigs, conjured up in Manolo Blahnik nightmares. Call it Gidget Goes to Versailles.

With Kirsten Dunst as a naïve, thumb-sucking 14-year-old virgin plucked from Austria in 1768 to become the child bride of a near-catatonic French monarch she’s never met, and limburger-faced Jason Schwartzman as a clumsy, moronic King Louis XVI, the plot ends faster than you can say “ Quel fromage!” The next 123 minutes is nothing more than eye candy with rock ’n’ roll. There’s enough fey chintz to stock the D & D Building, enough gold leaf to open 10 frame shops, and enough French pastry to turn you into a carnivore. The overwrought director sees Marie as France’s most misunderstood monarch, but provides nary one sane member of the court who misunderstands her. Everyone at Versailles is so self-absorbed with gossip, conspiracy and scandal, and so stuffed with Napoleons, brioches, éclairs and cream-filled canapés, that there’s nothing for a lonely, bored and nougat-brained little myth-in-the-making to do in order to fill her miserable hours but trade barbs with the treacherous Madame du Barry, throw lavish costume balls, play cards, munch candied violets and shop for shoes at the 18th-century version of Payless. Her marriage is a business alliance for purely political reasons that she doesn’t even begin to comprehend; her marriage isn’t even consummated for seven years. With the hairy, powdered-wig Mr. Schwartzman playing Louis XVI like Elmer Fudd in drag, it’s no wonder Marie escapes to the bed of an oversexed Swedish count and a country farm where even the rutting pigs remind her what she’s been missing. By the time she manages to miraculously produce an heir, empty the treasury with her gambling debts, and defiantly declare that she never said “Let them eat cake!”, you’ll be praying for the angry, starving mob of peasants to start the French Revolution and drag her off in a tumbrel.

For a long and exhausting movie that shows extended details of everything from palace protocol to the number of eggs Marie’s barnyard chickens lay at the Petit Trianon, it is positively amazing that there isn’t a single shot of the guillotine. What you do get is an avalanche of white chocolate. Marie Antoinette is too over-the-top to be considered an amuse-bouche, but there’s such a void at the center you couldn’t call it la grande bouffe, either. It’s like a chocolate truffle with nothing inside. And there really is an extended sequence of enough candy, confectioner’s sugar and chantilly to make you retch. There’s a lot to look at, but the excess exudes a preciousness that becomes cloyingly nauseous.

Defending the negative bruising she’s getting, Ms. Coppola has gone on the record to state that she didn’t want to make a dry, historical period tableau, but designed the movie “to let the audience feel what it might be like to be in Versailles during that time and to really get lost in that world.” The result is a laughable self-indulgence in which the audience gets lost in translation, all right. If the members of the French court had truly been forced to listen to Adam and the Ants and “Fools Rush In” by Bow Wow Wow, the Revolution would have started a lot sooner.

Queen Sweeps

Movies about queens with their crowns on crooked are suddenly the rage, but as silly and pretentious as Marie Antoinette is, the wonderful British film The Queen gets it right. Directed by the excellent Stephen Frears, with a memorable screenplay by Peter Morgan, the extraordinary writer of The Last King of Scotland, this is a reverent, intelligent and responsible look at what went on behind the closed doors of Buckingham Palace in the troubled aftermath of Princess Diana’s death. It is not a documentary, but Helen Mirren’s majestic performance as H.R.H. Queen Elizabeth is real, detailed and authentic-looking. It looks right, sounds right and has a stamp of truth that is practically unheard of in a fictional account of events usually reserved for documentary filmmaking. It’s a stunning and perceptive work of integrity that is rare for a film of any kind.

From the fatal crash in Paris on Aug. 30, 1997, that deeply altered a saddened world’s opinion of the royal family, to the Queen’s reluctant surrender to public pressure to stage (and attend) a public funeral for Diana at Westminster Abbey, the film chronicles the quiet turbulence inside Buckingham Palace in the hours following the earth-shaking news, sparing no details, from the Queen’s efforts to cope with damage control and protect her grandsons from excessive grief to her tense and suspicious relationship with her new prime minister, Tony Blair, who had only been in office three months at the time of Diana’s death. Hounded by the press, criticized by her own subjects, a victim of both sympathy and hostility, the Queen stuck by her controversial decision to make no public statement and exhibited the traditional values of procedure and protocol that she had been taught since her coronation at age 25. The film takes no sides, quoting Princess Margaret on Diana (“More trouble dead than alive”) and Tony Blair on the royals (“Will someone please save these people from themselves?”), even questioning the relevance of the monarchy altogether (especially in the eyes of Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie). Prince Philip (James Cromwell) is the biggest fool of all, an impotent figurehead with no power and a hypocrite as well (judgmental about Diana but no stranger to adultery himself), and Prince Charles (warm and sustaining work by Alex Jennings) is the biggest surprise, revealing maturity, sensitivity and vision when the chips are down.

No whitewash here. Philip is vulgar and prejudiced; the tipsy Queen Mum (Sylvia Syms) is never far from her Baccarat tumbler of hundred-year-old booze. Elizabeth retreats from the scandal to the 40,000-acre Balmoral estate, driving her Range Rover through the rocky streams and muddy roads of Scotland, talking on her cell phone and spitting out the occasional “Bugger it!” But while she remains above the fray and beyond the public clamor for her head on a platter, her emotions surface in intimate moments that are heartbreaking. Her stoicism in the face of international mourning leads to a constitutional crisis that forces her to break the rules and fly the flag at half-mast above the palace, even though she is not in residence. By this time, you feel the conflict of a woman, a mother and a ruler with a heart. Mr. Frears’ careful direction, Mr. Morgan’s balanced screenplay and Ms. Mirren’s considered performance play fair with both sides of a difficult equation.

Showing the differences between inherited power and elected power in modern times that redefine the importance of the throne, this is one of the best British films in years. Who knows for certain the truths, half-truths or embellishments of artistic license? Was Philip really mortified by the guest list and the presence of Elton John singing in Westminster Abbey? In their royal bedroom chamber, does Philip really thwack the Queen on the rump and call her “Cabbage”? And did Her Majesty really change her mind about Diana after her Land Rover broke down in a remote glen and she came face to face with a brave stag marked for death in a hunt? The beautiful, defiant stag seems a bit forced and overly symbolic. Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair is distinctive, but such an awed and naïve puppy when he first meets the salty Queen that his gradual respect and adoration of her later on is not entirely convincing. Was it really Blair who forced her to knuckle under to the tabloid frenzy outside the palace door, appear on live TV and show public remorse on CNN?

Never mind. When I think what sentimental tripe The Queen could have been in the hands of amateurs, I bow in gratitude to all concerned. Especially to Helen Mirren, who never surrenders to parody or satire, but grafts a seriousness of purpose to her portrait of a queen that is positively triumphant. Instead of a colorful caricature, she peels Queen Elizabeth like an onion, keeping your curiosity about her growing without ever diminishing her importance. Refined, restrained, dignified, illustrious and unexpectedly compassionate, this is a performance of overwhelming magnitude. From whores to homicide cops to the queens of England, Ms. Mirren has always sought perfection in a gamut of assignments. With this amazing piece of social and cultural history, she achieves it.

Blonde Blunder

Any new cabaret season would ordinarily be off to a peppy start with an appearance by perennial blond favorite KT Sullivan, but the idea of teaming her up with saloon crooner Allan Harris at the Algonquin’s Oak Room to celebrate the songs of Duke Ellington and Johnny Mercer does none of them any favors. The sophistication of Mr. Ellington’s urban Harlem jazz and the brilliant but down-home country gingham and moonlight of Mr. Mercer’s lyrics have little in common besides musical excellence, and KT’s lilting soprano is jarringly mismatched with Mr. Harris’ melting baritone. She’s an effervescent Broadway baby, better suited to show tunes; he’s a saloon singer from the Nat King Cole school, more at ease in a jazz lounge. In this uneasy “act” that runs through Oct. 14, they both seem uncomfortable in their struggle to reach a truce: like Israel meets Palestine, with piano, bass and drums.

KT, who has charm to spare, was better matched with her ex-partner Mark Nadler, and now finds herself so miscast in ridiculous choices like “Drop Me Off in Harlem” that she has trouble suppressing the urge to laugh. Mr. Harris, who has more of a sense of time and blues phrasing, is better cast in the role of an Ellington interpreter, but has no charm at all. The result is very odd indeed. To make up for being on the wrong stage in the wrong show, KT adjusts her usual front-and-center operetta style and lowers her voice on ballads to blend better with his, but she does it with clinched teeth and muffled phrasing that can rarely be heard beyond the immediate range of her pinkie ring. The baffling and annoying results are incomprehensible readings of “Prelude to a Kiss” and “I Wonder What Became of Me” that make her look and sound like a ventriloquist. I guess you could say that her usual perkiness is taking a sabbatical. When she’s there, the alleged “staging” is so awkward that she spends her time circling her co-star and waiting for her turn at the mike, but for at least half of the show, she’s not even in the room. That leaves Mr. Harris with all the best songs, but although he acquits himself nicely on such Mercer evergreens as “Laura,” “Skylark” and “Midnight Sun,” there’s a sameness to his style. Wrapped in his soft brushstrokes, the tunes all tend to sound pretty much alike. The best thing about this show is the accompaniment by the distinguished jazz pianist Eric Reed, although even he seems 50 percent frustrated.

I don’t know what is going on here or who thought up this bad idea in the first place, but at these prices, two fine performers end up wasting a lot of the audience’s valuable time and money. KT Sullivan and Allan Harris have both been treasures individually, on their own and in different venues, but to a mere mortal who has admired them elsewhere, this badly conceived collaboration is not a musical marriage made in any heaven I recognize.