Despite being top-billed in Fernando Trueba’s The Queen of Spain—sequel to his 1998 film The Girl of Your Dreams—Penélope Cruz only appears for its first half hour, and then mostly in a slyly edited newsreel-style combination of real and faux-historical footage of her embodying the glamor of the screen sirens of the 1950s. Cruz’s character, the kindhearted but tempestuous Macarena Grenada, preens and flashes bright smiles, ducking into a limousine surrounded by fans, remaining ever at arm’s length. For those who have not seen The Girl of Your Dreams, keeping Macarena at a very deliberate distance creates a sense of mystery and suspense that lingers until she makes her way to the film’s action proper. Much in the way that 2015’s The Man From UNCLE brought the audience up to speed (in terms of historical background) during the opening credits via snappy newspaper clippings, the first moments of The Queen of Spain prime us for the film’s engagement with artifice, juxtaposing voiceover narration, Macarena and snippets of actual historical events before bringing us to the film’s setting: Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain.
Macarena, you see, has returned from the United States, where she has been cavorting with the likes of Marlon Brando and Cary Grant, to film a movie about Queen Isabella of Castile in a transparent attempt by Franco’s government to use art as propaganda. Obsessed with creating monuments to himself, Franco is all too glad to use American dollars (and blacklisted American screenwriters) to boost the image of his oppressive government all around the world. What better way to suggest a new glorious era for Spain—as well as give a warning to any enemies of the state—than evoking the bloody reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, starring a universally and internationally beloved star?
It eventually becomes clear that The Queen of Spain is trying to position itself as Singing in the Rain by way of Armando Iannucci. Making a film about filmmaking is nothing new, so the political context of the claustrophobic, frightening nature of the government’s control over nearly every part of life in Spain is meant to add some kind of urgency and tension to the proceedings.
The co-protagonist of the movie, a once-famous director named Blas Fontiveros (Antonio Resines), returns to Spain after having escaped the Mauthausen concentration camp, and makes a beeline to the set of Macarena’s movie. Said movie, of course, is unutterably—and hilariously—bad, including awful dialogue, a tepid battle scene and a gamely performed (if vapid) ballad by the future Queen of Spain. In fact, on the very first day of shooting, the film’s historical consultant is so horrified by the inaccuracies that she’s wheeled off the set, kicking and screaming, practically frothing at the mouth.
Blas has returned to a Spanish film industry that is clearly not once what it was. Over an elegant dinner, the producers, the director, entourage and the blacklisted screenwriter tell him—and us, by extension—that “portraying realism in Spain is an unrealistic pursuit,” stressing the need to make comedic films in this uncertain time, as “life is dark enough.” A few on-the-nose (but accurate) digs in The Queen of Spain acknowledge the flexing muscles of America victorious even as they highlight the massive hypocrisy on nearly all sides. The aforementioned historical consultant sputters, “This is an American farce!” only to be told that “that’s what Americans make.” Yet the producer Spiegelman (Arturo Ripstein) and writer Berman (Mandy Patinkin) are Americans, brought on by Franco and working by necessity to make the ultimate Spanish movie (the most expensive movie ever made in Spain, according to another character). Spiegelman and Berman, who are clearly meant to be Jewish, do exchange a few words over potential misgivings about getting involved with this film, but, as Berman reminds Spiegelman wryly, he can’t get work in the United States, the land of the free, having been blacklisted for suspected communism. The suspected Communist is good enough to work in fascist Spain, and so it goes.
The Queen of Spain’s performances for the most part are strong, with the exception of Cary Elwes, who plays Macarena’s smarmy, buffoonish American costar (who plays Ferdinand, because comedy). Elwes is hamstrung by a decidedly cringeworthy side plot about his character being secretly gay (and harassing one of the Spanish actors), and sports a frankly bizarre accent that sounds more like Patricks Warburton and Bateman had a baby rather than the plummy enunciations of Cary Grant. Cruz is, of course, excellent as always, and Resines brings a quiet, pained dignity to the role of a man who persists despite having suffered unfathomably. Meanwhile, Loles León is effusive and sardonic as Macarena’s best friend and confidante, Trini. In general, though, there are too many characters fighting for scraps of screentime to bear more than the meagerest fleshing out.
Tonally, the movie can never quite find it’s footing—probably because, frankly, it wasn’t written by Armando Iannucci, and therefore isn’t able to balance brutal political commentary with hilarious dialogue (see: In the Loop) without seeming distasteful or overly flippant. When the film makes its hairpin turn from comedy to drama, it doesn’t really fully commit, which has the effect of negating the power of its more serious ideas. Once General Franco himself makes an appearance to intimidate the actors on the set of the movie-within-the movie, The Queen of Spain’s lighter tone feels even more misplaced. Were the entirety of the film made up of asides and vignettes about how the (gilded fascistic) sausage gets made, perhaps it would have been more consistently amusing. Instead, once its dramatic plotline kicks in, the film’s already become lost in itself.
Director: Fernando Trueba
Writer: Fernando Trueba
Starring: Penélope Cruz, Antonio Resines, Neus Asensi, Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin
Release Date: August 18, 2017