Veteran Slovak helmer Juraj Jakubisko lets his imagination run wild in "Bathory."

Veteran Slovak helmer Juraj Jakubisko lets his imagination run wild in “Bathory,” an unwieldy gothic fairy tale that tries to demystify the titular Hungarian countess famous for bathing in virgins’ blood. Director’s first English-language pic stars Anna Friel as the woman with the strange hygiene habits, but the British thesp is frequently eclipsed by Jakubisko’s sheer visual magic. Campy asides, nudity and plentiful foreign accents will make this a hard sell as a straightforward Anglophone epic. Beyond Central Europe, exposure will be limited to festivals and the tube.

“The fewer the facts, the more plentiful the legend,” says the narrator, wise monk Petr (Bolek Polivka). It’s a suitably ironic intro to a revisionist apologia for a misunderstood Renaissance woman, and it’s also in keeping with the helmer’s ongoing exploration of the area between reality and fantasy. Divided into three parts of about 45 minutes each (perfect for a miniseries), the pic aims to restore some dignity to the woman dubbed history’s most prolific murderess.

In the first part, set in the late 16th century, countess Erzsebet Bathory (Friel) romances girl-shy Italian painter Caravaggio (Hans Matheson), even though she’s married to the powerful Ferenc Nadasy (Vincent Regan). Part two, set in the early 17th century, focuses on the relationship between the still young-looking countess and mysterious healer Darvulia (Deana Jakubiskova, the helmer’s wife and one of pic’s producers) as regional tensions mount after the Turks are finally defeated.

A conspiracy to remove Bathory from power after she becomes a widow wraps things up in part three, with Palatine Thurzo (Karel Roden) leading the charge.

One of the most expensive Central European productions ever, pic is baroque by any standard, though the title role is severely underwritten: The negation of Bathory’s claim to fame is a nice angle, but can’t substitute for proper character development. In his eagerness to show how Bathory was pushed around by forces beyond her, Jakubisko loses sight of the countess herself.

Friel’s performance doesn’t help. She looks fab in the dazzling period garb and hair, but fails to make the audience care about her fate. Other actors fare better in smaller roles, though even they occasionally take a backseat to the visual delights and gothic gore (severed heads, burnt witches, frozen babies). Battle scenes are spectacularly staged, but their direct connection to Friel’s character is only slight.

Laid-back attitude toward nudity and some over-the-top comic relief (mostly involving Petr, a cross between Sean Connery’s monk in “The Name of the Rose” and James Bond’s Q) are both typically Central Euro. Add in some campy dialogue (“I can’t seem to capture the curves of your body,” purrs Caravaggio to the countess) and a mixed bag of accents, and pic becomes more of a cinematic curiosity than true blockbuster material, despite its scale.

Tech credits are generally superb, except the unmemorable score.

Bathory

Czech Republic, Slovakia -U.K .- Hungary

Production

A Bontonfilm (in Czech Republic/Slovakia)/Budapest Film (in Hungary) release of a Jakubisko Film (Czech Republic)/Jakubisko Film Slovakia (Slovakia)/Film & Music Entertainment (U.K.)/Eurofilm Studio (Hungary) production, in association with Ceska Televise. (International sales: Sola Media, Stuttgart.) Produced by Deana Jakubiskova, Mike Downey, Thom Mount. Directed by Juraj Jakubisko. Screenplay, Jakubisko, John Paul Chapple.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), F.A. Brabec, Jan Duris; editor, Christopher Blunden, Patrick Pass; music, Simon Boswell, Jan Jirasek, Martin Maok Tesak; production designers, Karel Vacek, Jan Zazvorka; costume designer, Jaroslava Pecharova; sound (Dolby), Simon Gershon. Reviewed at Karlovy Vary Film Festival (Tribute to Juraj Jakubisko), July 6, 2008. Running time: 135 MIN.

With

Anna Friel, Karel Roden, Vincent Regan, Hans Matheson, Deana Jakubiskova, Bolek Polivka, Antony Byrne. (English dialogue)
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