The late John Osborne’s final film script (completed by colleague Charles Wood) proves a shaky craft in which to launch a celebration of Blighty’s first great composer, Henry Purcell. Timed to coincide with the 300th anni of the cleffer’s death, Tony Palmer’s 2 1/2 hour musical biopic strains for significance in much of the early and middle going before attaining true majesty in the final hour. Set to air on Channel 4 at Christmas, “England, My England” will find its most devoted audience on arty webs, with little of the broader potential of previous Palmer studies such as “Wagner” or the Shostakovich-fest “Testimony.”
Purcell simply doesn’t have a big enough popular following, or a sexy enough life, to merit such a mammoth exercise as this. In past biopics — such as those devoted to Berlioz, Handel, Puccini and Hindemith — Palmer always has cut his cloth according to his subject, remaining true to the spirit of the music and the man while cutting major slack on the facts.
Faced with almost nothing known about Purcell the man, and only fragmentary detail about his life, the Osborne-Wood script constructs an unwieldy parallel narrative set in the 1960s, mirroring the decline of national pride and values with those 300 years earlier. This whole strand could be ditched, to the work’s benefit.
Simon Callow, in hammiest mode, plays an actor-writer first seen treading the boards in G.B. Shaw’s “In Good King Charles’ Golden Days,” directed by one Tony Palmer at the Royal Court. When the closing notices blessedly go up, he sets about researching a play on Purcell, which he tries to sell to a legit producer (played by producer Bill Kenwright). Lucy Speed plays Callow’s actress partner and sounding board throughout these ’60s segments.
Bulk of the pic, however, is set in the 17th century, following Purcell from chorister child to de facto court composer under a variety of rulers (Charles, James and William) and some of London’s most traumatic events (the great plague, which wiped out half the city’s population; the fire of London, and the freezing winter of 1684 when the Thames froze over). Between all these, and siring several children who died in childbirth, Purcell managed to crank out more than 1,000 compositions in 16 years, before dying at age 37.
The movie treads water during the first hour, which lingers over-long on Purcell’s childhood and is dominated by the presence of Callow, over-acting as both the 20th-century thesp and as King Charles. With Purcell a participant in events as a young man rather than an observer as a kid, interest picks up, especially in Michael Ball’s untroubled, insouciant perf as an artist who knows he’s good and doesn’t have to suffer to prove it.
Herein, and especially during the final hour as the 20th-century scenes recede, Palmer hits his stride in one setpiece after another — the premiere of the semi-opera “King Arthur,” the funeral procession of Queen Mary (the splendid Rebecca Front) — in which music and lush, budget-defying visuals combine to powerful effect. Nic Knowland’s lensing has a texture in these segs that one almost can bite on.
At the end of the day, Purcell still is transparent as a man and composer, which is fair enough given the paucity of facts. In Palmer’s pic, the period in which he lived is the true central character — one of powerful European influences, a country in almost permanent bankruptcy, ongoing struggles between Catholics and Protestants, and a milieu in which the arts survived only through royal patronage.
It’s a strong enough portrait of a country struggling to maintain its identity without 20th century parallels stripped in to hammer home the points. The choice of the 1960s — an era of Brit pride and musical renaissance — also is strange, not least for a coruscating put-down of the EEC by Callow the actor. The 1990s would seem to fit Osborne’s ends much better.
Other performances are tip-top down the line, from the late Robert Stephens as the playwright Dryden (doubling as narrator) through Corin Redgrave’s German-born King William to Nina Young as Purcell’s wife. Early music specialist John Eliot Gardiner conducts a toney selection from the composer’s oeuvre.