Originally shot as a two part mini-series for German television, Jo Baier’s historical romp Henry of Navarre (2010, aka ‘Henri 4‘) arrives on DVD shaved down to a still hefty 148 minutes. An odd choice, not least because the individual episodes clocked in at a manageable two hours, encompassing their own narrative arcs and preoccupations and would surely have worked theatrically as such.
The compressed theatrical version would perhaps feel slightly schizophrenic, was it not for our attentions being distracted by the second in a series of odd decisions – namely to dub all German speaking actors into crude French.
In recounting the epic tale of France’s treasured King Henri IV (Julien Boisselier) as he strives for freedom of faith (whilst stopping at every juncture to bonk the nearest pair of legs that wanders into his eyeline), there is a distinct conflict of representation and even an implicit ownership of national ancestry when dealing with icons such as Henri IV – remember the uproar at Cannes when Sofia Copolla restyled Marie Antoinette as a mopey punk princess? Based on Heinrich Mann’s popular adventure novels, the filmmakers opt for an uneasy spate of German and French actors, dubbing the French performances for the original TV release and bafflingly reversed, despite the German talent more than outweighing the French, for the UK release. It must be said that performance-wise a lot – in what I promise will be the last crowbarred Sofia Coppola reference – is lost in translation.
Inherent structural problems aside, Henry of Navarre is actually a lot of fun. The film flits past Henri’s childhood within the first few minutes, presumably because the filmmakers cannot contrive a situation which the young king has sex with enough women to sustain the audience’s attention. They do, however, very quickly treat us to a pleasingly brutal battle sequence, which concludes rather charmingly with the protagonist fervently washing away evidence of its terrifying impact from his britches.
Regardless of any issues the Henry of Navarre has or one has with the film, it is undeniably a fantastic achievement as a European historical epic of real scale and ambition, and delivers the violent goods with style and panache, despite a modest budget. The cinematography skilfully emulates renaissance paintings of the period, and the battle sequences handled with fierce energy. The filmmakers must have slept easy knowing that Gernot Roll was behind the lens, a veteran of German television’s Heimat series, a landmark of German cinema and one of the finest TV programmes of all time.
Julien Boisselier is strong as the eponymous hero/rogue, even if the film doesn’t allow him anything more than surface characterisation. His presence is enhanced, perhaps, by the wildly uneven supporting performances. Ulrich Noethen (Downfall’s Himmler) overacts to a hilarious degree as Charles IX and is, perhaps inadvertently, the most enjoyable aspect of the film, such is his devouring of any and all surrounding scenery. This is perhaps accentuated by the 70’s Euro-trash style dubbing, which is not to detract in any way from his cartoonish achievement.
Henry of Navarre treats the rest of its German and Austrian cast with less regard, relegating wonderful actors such as Karl Markovics and Sandra Hüller to menial parts, perhaps sacrificed to the cutting room floor in the theatrical edit. However, to bemoan such things is a to willfully misinterpret the film – Henry of Navarre is not an actors film, more a rollicking, well executed work of Tudor’s style trash and, taken as such, it works rather well.