Tuesday 10 November 2020

Movie Review: Fire Over England (1937)

A historical drama, Fire Over England is a robust combination of espionage and romance set against a drumbeat of impending war.

It's the late 1500s and tensions are rising between England under Queen Elizabeth (Flora Robson) and Spain under King Philip II (Raymond Massey). Spain has a dominant armada, but pesky British raids increase the likelihood of full-scale conflict. Englishman adventurer Michael Ingolby (Laurence Olivier) gets caught on the losing side of a naval skirmish and is held by the Spanish. He is allowed to escape because of his father's connections, but not before starting a romance with Elena (Tamara Desni), a member of Philip's court.

Michael returns to England and his true love Cynthia (Vivien Leigh), one of the Queen's attendants. Elizabeth is surrounded by schemers and struggling with loneliness and advancing age, and resents the youth and vitality of Cynthia and Michael. But after traitor Hillary Vane (James Mason) disappears, the Queen recruits Michael to infiltrate Philip's court on a dangerous mission to identify those plotting against her.

A British production directed by William K. Howard and co-produced by Alexander Korda, the screen adaptation of the 1936 A. E. W. Mason novel is a grand yet controlled historical adventure. The film mixes history with palace intrigue and adds pinches of swashbuckling action into a lively 92 minutes. 

Fire Over England started the real-life romance (later leading to marriage) between Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and is also one of the performances that helped Leigh land the coveted Scarlett O'Hara role in Gone With The Wind. But aside from incidental significance, the film is also a well-crafted costume drama with plenty to enjoy.

The few naval warfare action scenes are more graceless than good, but once on firm ground Howard makes good use of impressive sets to recreate the competing courts of Elizabeth and Philip, with all the surrounding pomp, circumstance and hangers-on. And the script by Clemence Dane and Sergei Nolbandov maintains a reasonably good handle on the numerous characters and agendas swirling around the monarchs.

Despite the brisk pace, the film pauses for several moments of astute reflection with the Queen as she ponders her legacy with the passage of time and within the continuously shifting political realities. Flora Robson is a domineering Queen Elizabeth, and her scenes mixing wistfulness, barely contained jealousy and sly empathy are a joy. Olivier is a dashing and athletic protagonist, with evident sparks between him and the coquettish Leigh. And in relatively few scenes, Raymond Massey makes a keen impression as a hands-on King Philip, intimidating with sheer presence and sharp intellect.

Michael's uncanny ability to repeatedly outsmart and escape the Spaniards is of course well beyond far-fetched, but Fire Over England generates enough sustained heat to navigate the choppy waters.

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