Written and directed by: Ken Hughes
When critically watching biopics, I can find myself asking a version of the question: “is this art or mere recreation.” Historical inaccuracies aside, there are two ways to answer that with Cromwell, a lengthy film depiction of the ascent to power of England’s only non-royal head of state (the passion project of Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang co-writer/director Ken Hughes). One way to answer that question is to say that the art/reaction dichotomy does not apply, when truth is so ridiculous it might as well be a work of fiction. That argument, for instance, explains a lot of the appeal of Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic Vice.
In the case of Cromwell, his story is not brimmed with absurdity in the way that Cheney’s is, but it nonetheless derives its artistic appeal in a similar manner. When watching political films, an overused though not useless response is to say “can you believe this is still relevant today!” Cromwell, by contrast, works as a story precisely because it is so hard to apply it to modern contexts. 1640s England was a society in which the death penalty (and accusations of treasons) are almost nonchalantly deployed my monarchists and parliamentary rebels alike. The arrests leading to these executions, meanwhile, are carried out rather (to today’s gaze) comically, by forces with hoity-toity voices in comically period costumes, armed only with swords. The most uncomfortable reason Cromwell is not translatable to modern contexts, however, are the politics of its protagonist. Cromwell is portrayed as a socially-conscientious critic of aristocracy with no patience for corruption, elitism and religious hypocrisy. In his context, however, those views (along with his Puritan faith) led him to take staunchly anti-Catholic views, attitudes that established his legacy as a brutal colonizer in Ireland. If Oliver Cromwell were alive today would be far-left? Far-right? Neither? In today’s world, one free of the Puritansand anti-Papal rhetoric, would a Cromwell figure actually be a friend of the Irish independence movement? That it’s impossible to say is part of what makes his cinematic-story such a unique one.
The other way that Cromwell manages to be art and not just mere retelling is in its Shakespearian character. In its Cromwell’s first scenes, Oliver (Richard Harris) is very forward in his political analysis. In that scene I felt the film was primarily a work of exposition, rushing to make its point. When a few scenes later King Charles I (Alec Guiness) is introduced, however, it becomes clear that there is something more artistic to the film’s expositional quality. At this early point in the film, neither Cromwell or Charles are presented as ideological hardliners (though Cromwell begins the transformation quite quickly). Both mull over their options, listening to the stronger-willed voices around them. Charles’s Queen, Henrietta (Dorothy Tutin), even has an air of Lady MacBeth to her. Yet despite their initial moderation, and their ability to be civil with one another, Charles and Cromwell alike (much like the initially uncorrupted Lord MacBeth), both come to make drastic decisions and gradually become more confident about having done so.
This Shakespearian portrayal of Cromwell and Charles is undoubtedly a creative decision. I say this not only because it explains some of the film’s historical liberties, but also because the very idea of reducing a historical event to the tale of two complex characters living in a sea of empty talking-heads is a political statement of sorts. How exactly Oliver Cromwell is perceived often depends on whether the perceiver sees him more as an austere dictator or a proto-democratic revolutionary. Through portraying Cromwell as uniquely introspective, however, this film not only challenges this dichotomy, but also way democracy is celebrated in the west. We often assess the general benevolence of states based on whether they have liberal-democratic governments or not. By contrasting Oliver with the less ideologically-astute parliamentarians, however, Cromwell shows this way of thinking is inadequate. What good is a government that has good form if (to borrow Cromwell’s Christian parlance) it has no soul?
Cromwell’s biggest downside is its runtime (2 hours twenty minutes), no doubt over-extended via the film’s depiction of the actual English civil war. My overall experience, with the film, however, was a good one. Through its Shakespearian approach, it manages to show its sympathies to the anti-monarchic cause, while still portraying Charles as an individually engaging character (particularly in his final scene with his children). More importantly, it’s a film that portrays Cromwell as he requested, “warts and all,” and in doing so it makes a unique statement in favor of the individual in politics.