The Reign in Spain

The Queen of Spain (La reina de España)
(Spain, 128 min.)
Written and directed by Fernando Trueba
Starring: Penélope Cruz, Antonio Resines, Javier Cámara, Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Chino Darín
Penélope Cruz stars in The Queen of Spain.
Pacific Northwest Pictures
The Queen of Spain, colloquially known as Penélope Cruz, returns to the throne in one of her most popular and acclaimed roles. Cruz gives an encore performance as Macarena Granada, her movie star character from The Girl of Your Dreams, which won her a Goya (Spanish Oscar) for Best Actress, and she’s in top form working again with director Fernando Trueba and most of the cast from the original film.

The Queen of Spain, like The Girl of Your Dreams, follows the exploits of artists toiling in the struggling film scene of Franco era Spain. Where the first film transplants the crew to Germany for a lark with Hitler, the sequel plants its feet on Spanish soil to satirize Hollywood’s effort to exploit cheap production in Europe. (Now they just use Canada!) The result might not be as grand or as tight a package as its predecessor, but The Queen of Spain nevertheless offers a timely and funny depiction of artistic expression under the curtain of fascism.

Audiences who haven’t seen The Girl of Your Dreams needn’t worry about being able to follow the characters or plot since The Queen of Spain offers a quick newsreel primer on all the events, relationships, bits of celebrity gossip and ooh-la-la to bridge the gap with the original film. Cruz doesn’t actually appear in the film for a while outside of this reel, since the bulk of the exposition centres on the return of Macarena’s former film director and flame, Blas Fontiveros (Antonio Resines), as he comes back from exile. The currents of General Franco’s tightly guarded regime leave little room for politically inclined artists and intellectuals like Blas, and the filmmaker wanders onto the studio lot with his figurative tail between his knees in search of work.

After bidding Hola! to many members of the old gang, Blas gets a behind the scenes peek on the epic production The Queen of Spain, a lavish Hollywood production on the life of Queen Isabella I that hopes to smooth Spanish-American relations and boost Spain’s film industry. The set visit lands Blas a gig as second unit director to bumbling Hollywood legend John Scott (Clive Reville), who milks his status as the most lauded Oscar-winning director but mostly sleeps on set or spends the day piss drunk. The work lets Blas and The Queen of Spain have some fun with the idiosyncrasies and quirks of showbusiness, like hack extras ruining takes with ham-fisted acting and the joy of directing lavish set pieces as the paint on the matte dries above the camera. (Some homophobic and politically incorrect gags with characters such as Cary Elwes’s Cary Grant-type, however, are a bit passé.) The Queen of Spain is a movie by film buffs for film buffs and the insiders’ eye of this chapter of world cinema history is often quite amusing.

The Queen of Spain also tackles the politics of the era, particularly as they intersect with film and culture, when Blas gets hauled off from the set and sent to a forced labour camp. He’s a political prisoner of sorts, as is the screenwriter for the film within the film, played by Mandy Patinkin, who doesn’t get a credit on The Queen of Spain due to the Hollywood Blacklist. All these commies make for a rambunctious caper and The Queen of Spain goes from Day for Night to Wag the Dog with behind the scenes comedy that becomes a disguise for a jailbreak.

Macarena re- enters the story once Blas is locked away at the camp. There’s a lot going on in The Queen of Spain—a bit too much—as the Spanish actress turned Hollywood starlet juggles her role with her concerns for Blas, rumours about her scandalous romances in LA, and an on-set affair with a member of the crew (Chino Darín, son of Argentine star Ricardo Darín). Cruz gives a luminous performance and half the fun of The Queen of Spain comes from watching Macarena try to make any sense of her poorly written character who forgoes historical accuracy to pander to Hollywood audiences. Made up “like a Comanche,” a historical advisor decrees, or giving a completely random musical number, Macarena’s star vehicle seems like an over the top gong show that might have bankrupted a studio back in the day. The other half of the fun of The Queen of Spain comes from watching Cruz try to make any sense of her character in a wildly uneven and tonally wayward film. Both productions of The Queen of Spain are a little loony.

There’s so much going on in both films that Trueba’s picture never quite hits its mark, but the ending gives a sense of what a tighter film might have produced if it simply focused on its main asset: Cruz. The appearance of General Franco, played by Carlos Areces in a fun turn as the mustachioed fascist with a falsetto, makes Macarena confront the past and consider how to look ahead when the controversial leader comes to sneak a peek at his nation’s hottest star. It’s a strong finale to an inconsistently strong film as Cruz gives The Queen of Spain the dramatic oomph and passion it’s been missing. The Queen of Spain ends as an enjoyable love letter to the movies and an affectionate nod to all those who persevere by entertaining the masses in hard times.

The Queen of Spain opens in Toronto (Cineplex Yonge-Dundas), Ottawa (Mayfair Theatre) and Edmonton (Princess) on August 25 and expands in Septemeber.