A good-looking big-budgeter about intrigue and betrayal in 16th-century Spain, the project is holed by a shaky script that pushes its cardboard characters through often far-fetched situations.

There’s a lot of pomp in “The El Escorial Conspiracy,” but little if any circumstance. A good-looking big-budgeter about intrigue and betrayal in 16th-century Spain, the project is holed by a shaky script that pushes its cardboard characters through often far-fetched situations. Pic’s defects, including poor dialogue and oddball casting, leave what was a decent idea on paper looking like second-rate tube material. Marketing should ensure initial good biz for the Sept. 5 home release before it fades due to word of mouth; offshore prospects are limited.

Pic opens in the magnificent surroundings of Toledo Cathedral, where, during a service led by priest Mateo Vazquez (Jordi Molla), slimy, ambitious nobleman Antonio Perez (Jason Isaacs) and the princess of Eboli (Julia Ormond, resplendent in eye patch) get it on in a side room.

Perez and the Duke of Alba are vying for the favors of Philip II (Juanjo Puigcorbe), who is troubled by developments in the Low Countries governed by his half-brother, Juan of Austria.

The half-brother’s personal secretary, Juan de Escobedo (Joaquim de Almeida), returns to Spain from Flanders, and, in a scene that smacks of second-class soap opera, he catches Perez and the princess in flagrante and steals a document detailing a plot against Philip.

Meanwhile, in a subplot, a love story develops between the innocent Damiana (Blanca Jara, the helmer’s daughter) and aging sheriff Espinosa (Jurgen Prochnow, in pic’s most convincing perf). After the secretary Escobedo is killed and Damiana is accused of attempting to poison him, Vazquez and Espinosa hook up to search for the killers.

Screenplay’s idea of what people were like 400 ago seems derived from other period pics, with only Prochnow evoking real emotion, although the mostly Spanish cast struggles to rise above the stereotypes and yards of over-explanatory dialogue.

Isaacs and Ormond strut and swagger convincingly enough, but other roles, such as Italian nobleman Tiepolo (Tony Peck), feel superfluous.

Suspense is also in short supply. Pic feels like a series of set pieces strung together, though some are impressive. Lush orchestral score is exactly as expected.

Pic was made in both Spanish and English versions. Dubbing on Spanish version caught was poor.

The El Escorial Conspiracy

Spain-Italy

Production

A Sony Pictures (in Spain) release of a Mascara Films (Spain)/Settima Luna (Italy) production, with participation of TVE, TeleMadrid, Canal Plus. (International sales: Mascara, Madrid.) Produced by Antonio del Real. Executive producer, Maria Jose Munoz. Directed by Antonio del Real. Screenplay, del Real, Juan Antonio Porto, Manuel Mir, Marta Rivera de la Cruz.

Crew

Camera (color), Carlos Suarez; editor, Teresa Font; music, Alejandro Vivas Puig; art director, Luis Valles; sound (Dolby Digital), Aitor Berenguer. Reviewed at Sony Pictures screening rooms, Madrid, July 18, 2008. Running time: 128 MIN.

With

Jason Isaacs, Julia Ormond, Jurgen Prochnow, Jordi Molla, Joaquim de Almeida, Juanjo Puigcorbe, Blanca Jara, Fabio Testi, Rosana Pastor, Tony Peck. (Spanish dialogue)

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