Henry of Navarre Blu-Ray Review

Henry of Navarre is not a great film. It certainly isn’t awful either, but it doesn’t ever quite reach the heights it could have. Feeling more like the squashing together of two made-for-TV movies (which it may very well be) rather than a legitimate piece of cinema, Jo Baier’s historic account seems to have all the pieces of a very exciting adaptation – they just aren’t pieced together with enough sophistication or panache. At two and a half hours long, the French epic is overstuffed with well-executed yet uninspired scenes of grisly battles, gratuitous sex and nudity, along with heaps of dull exposition about the religious strife of the 16th Century.

Based on the historical novels of German writer Heinrich Mann, the French-language feature is mostly set around 1560’s-70’s and follows the exploits, from infancy to adult-life, of the eponymous, Protestant leader Henry of Navarre (Julien Boisselier). As we are told by the over-arching narration, as well as a peculiar, high fantasy-esque scene complete with an old withering sage mumbling about prophecies amid glowing lights, young Henry is to be France’s saviour and future King in a time of holy unrest between Catholics and Protestants. Far from the angelic hero however, Henry’s fairly ruthless character offers the film perhaps its richest image of an individual, performed well by Boisselier. Henry’s quest for the crown is not that of the typically unwilling ‘chosen one’; instead he seems genuinely thirsty for power and does all he can to get hold of the golden headpiece.

The rest of the cast range from adequate to good, with no real stinkers among the big players. In Henry’s path to absolute power is the reigning King Charles IX, played by Ulrich Noethen as palpably fearful and agreeable to his almost pantomime mother, Catherine de Medici (Hannelore Hoger). In one theatrical scene of campest proportions Catherine bites the bare buttock of her promiscuous daughter Margot (Armelle Deutsch) to teach her from sleeping around, not before Charles gets a few frantic smacks in himself. Of course Margot doesn’t listen to her family’s warnings, and with an all-too-recognisable glint of ‘good girl gone bad’ in her eye she only goes and takes a tumble in the hay, or rather some bizarre steam filled stable, with Henry himself. Arranged by villainous extraordinaire Catherine, the two lovers are married in an attempt to unite the warring Catholic and Protestant factions. But Margot is continually playing second fiddle to Henry’s real love Gabrielle (Chloe Stefani), the Anne Boleyn to her Jane Seymour as it were.

Outside the royal politics and soap opera sex scandals, Henry of Navarre offers up some fairly impressive battles of bloodshed and slow-motion sword-swinging. To Baier’s credit, all this was achieved on a modest budget and the scenes and effects stand up well, even in HD. That being said, there is little excitement to be found in such scenes as they become more tiresome than exhilarating – perhaps the motto less is more does not have a French equivalent.

The Blu-Ray edition, whilst giving you sparkly battles and perceptible sweat-beads on nervous foreheads, features little in the way of extras or bonus material. The ‘Making Of’ documentary is outright odd – either it’s a lazy, cut-rate example of student filmmaking or a revolution in ‘making of’ cinema vérité. Considering the first two minutes feature a lot of shaky handheld shots of bored crew members queuing for their lunch whilst another shot shows a battle-scene extra applying his own ‘make-up’ by rolling sluggishly in the dirt for a few seconds, I’d be more inclined to opt for the former critique. Indeed the ‘Making Of’ documentary appears to only document a single afternoon shoot in the film’s production – it’s as if they forgot to make a proper one, and roped in even the film’s star (I could have sworn Boisselier was filmed holding a handheld) to do a bit DIY filmmaking on his JVC camcorder at the last minute.

Henry of Navarre would have benefitted from some ruthless editing with about half an hour at least screaming to be left on the cutting room floor – either that or it should just give up the pretence of being one theatrical film and admit what it really should be, a two-part television special. It would be much easier to digest that way, not only in terms of length but also with regards to the uncomfortable marketing masquerade it’s tried to pull, which includes such shamelessly exploitative yet obviously non-appraising quotes as “Ridley Scott styled battle scenes”. Henry of Navarre is no more a high-budget, high-drama cinematic epic than it is an adequately put-together smallscreen historical adaptation, spiced and salted as it is with a fair amount of creative license, sex and panto-queens et all. If only it would wise up to itself, it might be a whole lot more enjoyable.

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