This film is set against the background of the English Civil War after the parliamentary rebel armies have decisively defeated the Royalist forces of King Charles I at Naseby in 1645. A film covering the period to Charles I’s public execution and beyond has many devolopmental options – a history of the 17th century, the causes of the Civil War, the nature of the social revolution of which it was an expression, the religious cloaks, the main dramatis personae of the action, and more. The director, Mike Barker, after consideration, has made a deliberate choice and cut out all except the last option, focusing on the friendship between the two civil war leaders, Lord General Thomas Fairfax, creator of the victorious New Model Army, and his second in command, Oliver Cromwell.
The class nature of the English Revolution was not nearly as clear-cut as the French 140 years later, and there were many compromisers who wanted the king to remain – reformed by being subject to parliament instead of the divine right of kings. Fairfax was one of these. Cromwell was not. And Cromwell’s unfair conduct of Charles’s trial and the advance signing of his death warrant strained relations between the two friends to breaking point. After the king’s execution, with the army, in Fairfax’s view, spreading violence and fear in the new republic, and Cromwell behaving more and more like a king without a crown, Fairfax decides he has to put a stop to his old friend’s dictatorial practices, and arranges to have him assassinated while he is addressing a crowd. A discussion between the two just prior to this in which Cromwell expounds his vision of the republic moves Fairfax strongly, and at the last minute he saves Cromwell from the assassin’s bullet. Admitting his betrayal, he is forced into political exile. The wounds are healed six years later, when Fairfax hears that Cromwell is ill and dying. He rushes to his side and in an emotional scene they make up.
The mixture of the deeply personal and highly political is very tense and dramatic. This is much enhanced by the introduction of Fairfax’s wife Lady Anne as a central player in the drama, trying, true to her class, to keep Fairfax on the side of the king – unsuccessfully, though it helps to blunt his revolutionary zeal and widens the rift between the two friends. Here again, the mixture of the love element in the political plot heightens the dramatic impact and engrosses the viewer’s attention.
If one accepts the film within the limits offered, it is a fine presentation, well acted, particularly by Rupert Everett as the king and Olivia Williams as Lady Anne, with very impressive locations, costumes and crowd scenes. A historical materialist would have wished for a clearer description of the combatant class forces, which would have explained the generic origins of Cromwell’s attitudes and actions instead of their appearing to come just from his head.
The film does, however, acknowledge that what took place was a revolution, not a mere historical episode that did not fundamentally change the class nature of English society, as so many historians would have us believe. It does this specifically by a sentence coming up on the screen after the close of the action, saying that it took another 140 years before the epochal changes reoccurred, in the French Revolution. And no one disputes that that was a revolution.
A quietly evocative film
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