The A&E/BBC co-production “The Last King” is a lush, entertaining look at Charles II, known as the “Merry Monarch” for his taste in wine, women, song — and women. Four-hour treatment blends the high-spirited and the somber, focusing on a charismatic king who had to deal with a triple threat: the plague, the Great Fire of London and religious intolerance in the post-Cromwell era. Presentation will be an instant homerun with the Merchant-Ivory crowd, and will gain fans through repeated airings and upon a speedy DVD release next month.
Poor Charlie. His wife can’t stop crying. His mistress is sleeping with his teenage son. His mother henpecks him, nattering on about how Louis down in France builds roads that are so much better.
It ain’t easy being king.
Rufus Sewell is outstanding as a king who has been written off by historians as little more than a randy party boy. He brings texture and nuance to Charles, showing his resolve when Parliament gets out of hand, but becoming a softy when faced with a bawling girlfriend.
Joe Wright’s direction of the biopic avoids the chockablock “page out of history” fragmentation that occurs so often in epics, using Charles’ long-term paramours to link the tumult of the time to the king’s strife with the women in his life. It also gives several actresses the chance to strut their stuff.
Shirley Henderson has a tough role to pull off as Charles’ wife, the Portuguese Catharine of Braganza, without collapsing into a simpering mess. Even with electrocuted Princess Leia wigs and a lispy baby-talk affectation as she learns English, Henderson’s perf brings sympathy to a role that could easily fall to stereotype.
Charles’ long-term mistress Barbara Villiers is played with hiss-worthy glee by Helen McCrory. Fearful of losing her position (no pun intended) in the king’s household, she sets up a series of machinations to win the confidence of the queen and Charles’ eldest illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth (Christian Coulson).
The character of Nell Gwynn (Emma Pierson) is given short shrift considering her prominent stature in the folklore from the time. A sassy actress who wins the king’s heart with her quick wit, Pierson has only a few scenes to show how Gwynn entranced the monarch and the people of England. She does so with witty aplomb; more of Pierson would have added another degree of levity to the piece.
Writing deftly gives a nod to Charles’ well-known affinity for certain items — spaniels, clocks and oranges, among them — without going over the top.
“King” is the first A&E original movie to be presented in letterbox format. Version works well, giving perspective to the pic’s sprawling landscapes and sets — and, more often than not, wigs and robes.
One scheduling quibble: Playing the entire four hours at one sitting is a recipe for disaster. Ratings would be much improved if “King” was shown in miniseries format, as it was aired last year in the U.K.
The title refers to Charles’ dissolving Parliament, thereby being the last king of England to attempt to rule on his own. In the British version, the title was the much more intuitive “Charles II — The Power & the Passion.”