The political battles that brought the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror to a final climax are reduced in Andrzej Wajda’s period piece to two opposing camps: Maximillian Robespierre’s absolutists (played by French-dubbed Polish actors) and the moderating voices of Georges Danton & his followers (played by bellowing French). On its release, parallels between these Revolutionaries and the fight for democracy in Poland (Solidarity OUT/Soviet-backed general IN) were much debated, and certainly helped it gain critical traction. Thirty years on, the analogy looks specious (it's more Kerensky’s Socialists & Lenin’s Bolsheviks, perhaps) and the film itself looks intellectually tattered & self-important. The acting & staging fall someplace between amateur re-enactments and one of those thuddingly didactic Roberto Rossellini exercises, with Jean-Claude Carrière’s script giving us orations instead of dialogue. As the journalist Desmoulins, Patrice Chéreau comes the closest to building a character, but everyone else might as well be auditioning for 1789: The Musical.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: Hilary Mantel, who recently won the Mann Booker Prize for WOLF HALL, her historical novel about Thomas Cromwell & Henry VIII, has an equally fine book set during the French Revolution, A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: One of Eric Rohmer’s last pics, L’ANGLAISE ET LE DUC/01 (THE LADY AND THE DUKE) is even talkier than DANTON! But it’s good talk, between a conservative English lady in France and a liberal Duke of the Realm who debate politics, life, love & decor while the Revolution closes in. Even the physical production is fascinating with painterly CGI effects used to create a sort of tableau vivant on many exteriors. Lots & lots & lots of subtitles to read, but worth the effort.