Once upon a time there was a princess. She discovered that she was not the real princess after all. Her late father had imprisoned the real king and queen. All were now dead, but the real rulers had produced a son, who was now in hiding with two scholars. The princess determined to find him and give him back the throne that was rightfully his.
So, the princess went to spy on the prince and, this being a fairy tale, she fell in love with him at first sight. But no women were allowed near him. The scholars kept him in total seclusion, not just to protect his life, but also to protect his heart. They believed in pure rationality and spurned emotions, especially love. So the princess and her lady’s maid dressed up as boys and arrived at his doorstep, whereupon various complications ensue.
This story comes from a play first produced in 1732, now adapted to the screen by Clare Peploe and produced by her husband, Bernardo Bertolucci. Peploe keeps the setting of the story within its period, filming on location at magnificent houses dating back to the 18th century, but there are flickers of theatricality and modernity. A character appears to glimpse an audience in modern dress, seated on the magnificent lawn. Antique instruments on the soundtrack are briefly joined by an electric guitar (played by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour). And at the end, the performers come out in for a curtain call, wearing their own clothes.
These references to the dualities of 18th/21st centuries and male/female roles are supposed to echo the story’s themes of duality and disguise. But it does a disservice to elements of the story that can only be understood in the context of their era. The princess (Mira Sorvino) has only three strategies – she commands, she bribes, and she seduces. Most of the story has her seducing the scholars Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley), his sister Leontine (Fiona Shaw), and, of course, the prince (Jay Rodan). In each succeeding conversation with the first two, she tells more and more lies. With the prince, she begins with lies, and then tells more and more truth, revealing more to him each time they meet.
Kingsley and Shaw are magnificent, but the clash between the artificial structure of the story and the more contemporary, naturalistic tone of the film only makes it more painful for us to see them manipulated so horrendously by the princess. Rachael Stirling (daughter of “Avengers” star Diana Rigg) is delicious as the lady’s maid and brightens the film whenever she appears.
Parents should know that the movie includes gender-bending seductions, including a same-sex kiss. There are no four-letter words, but there is some spicy language and brief nudity.
Families who see this movie should talk about how people right the wrongs of their forebears and about the complications of getting to know someone and have to decide how much of the truth about yourself to share.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, also featuring Kingsley and the romantic complications of a woman dressed as a man.