On an official visit to lobby for international support of her beleaguered country amid the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Queen Marie of Romania expresses her frustration that the press coverage is focused not on her efforts at diplomacy, but her extravagant wardrobe and packed social diary. “I suppose if I wish to be heard, I must first allow myself to be seen,” she sighs. Alexis Sweet Cahill’s carefully ironed biopic “Queen Marie” fancies itself a corrective to such misogyny, offering the British-born monarch belated recognition of her contributions towards the eventual unification of Romania.
So why does the film still feel, as it drifts glacially by over the better part of two hours, like a record of the fabulous things she wore, and the famous people she met, on this tour? “Queen Marie” is dutiful in noting its subject’s accomplishments, but strangely negligent of her personality: Played with exacting decorum but little mirth or fervor by Roxana Lupu, she’s never quite a character, but a critical figure in a well-constructed historical diorama. Cahill’s film is something of an oddity from a country best known cinematically for the fresh, furious sociopolitical currency of its 21st-century “new wave.” If nothing else, “Queen Marie” proves that the Romanian industry can churn out stodgy, attractively decorated Europuddings with the best of them, but it’s hard to see who the audience for this multilingual snoozer might be.
Things start unprepossessingly, with newsreel footage under robotic narration, detailing the turbulent plight of Romania in the First World War — during which time the country’s royal family was forced to take refuge in Moldavia, where the Queen and her daughters labored as military nurses. If this sounds like rather good fodder for a movie, “Queen Marie” is insistent that the real drama was yet to come, introducing the family in strained but slightly less panicked times: The war is over, Romania has united with Transylvania and other neighboring regions, and the campaign for international aid for the larger nation can begin in earnest.
The obstacles, as presented in a labored, exposition-clogged screenplay, neatly take the form of three major powers. U.S. president Woodrow Wilson (Patrick Drury), French prime minister Georges Clemenceau (Ronald Chenery) and British prime minister David Lloyd George (Richard Elfyn) are presented as united in their skepticism of the new, improved Romania. The Romanian counterpart, prime minister Ion Bratianu, has failed to get through to them: Time, then, for a royal intervention, as the doughty Marie resolves to represent her country at the upcoming Paris peace talks, and secure an audience with these fusty male gatekeepers.
This feminist framing of the narrative lends a clear storytelling hook to a pretty dry chapter of history, though it elides a few political complexities — not least among them some governmental discord over sending the country’s Queen to do a politician’s job. “Royalties don’t meddle in politics, they are separate businesses,” Marie is told. The script invites us to share her consternation at this sentiment, though any republican-minded members of the audience would be hard-pressed to disagree. But meddle she does, across a procession of highly starched official appointments that, from a dramatic perspective, rather blur into one.
They do, however, afford a generous showcase to Norma Demitrescu and Laura Russu’s lavish production design, to say nothing of the dazzling array of feathered hats, baroquely patterned shawls and pearls rustled up by costume designers Claudia Bunea and Ana Ioneci. Yet the spectacle only goes so far when the writing — often hopping randomly and inelegantly between accented English and Romanian — is this stiff. This is the kind of historical drama where characters have a habit of speaking in helpful factual parentheticals (“She’s nothing like her grandmother, Queen Victoria”) or unconvincing pomposities (“And now the whole future of greater Romania is at stake!”), rarely saying anything that isn’t immediately and clunkily on-topic.
Sporadic distractions from Marie’s Parisian machinations come in the form of updates on her domestic tensions with husband King Ferdinand (Daniel Plier), fretfully and ineffectively waiting in Bucharest, and their rebellious adult sons. None of this is especially fascinating either, given that the script affords these men even less inner life than it does Marie, while their wardrobe is rather less exciting. Most viewers are likely to leave “Queen Marie” knowing more about the eponymous monarch than they did before, but with precious little inclination to learn much more.