While I must confess that historical stories about the British monarchy generally leave me cold, because I find it nearly impossible to track all the Byzantine relationships and rules, I dove into Cromwell with high hopes simply because of my affection for the actor Richard Harris, whom I find compelling in nearly any context. Alas, the cumbersome weight of the storyline makes Cromwell a tough sit. Ironically, it seems the filmmakers’ unsuccessful attempt to streamline the narrative had the deleterious additional repercussion of introducing a number of historical errors, so the film is neither entertaining nor purely factual. Worse, Harris simply isn’t very good here, opting for a numbing performance style that shifts back and forth between moping and screaming. In nearly every scene, he’s either too loud or too sullen. One is tempted to put the blame on director Ken Hughes for failing to calibrate Harris’ performance, since Hughes’ filmography is filled with mediocre movies, but whatever the reason, Harris fumbles an opportunity that his more disciplined contemporaries—Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, and such—probably would have seized.
Anyway, the subject matter is unquestionably worthwhile, because Cromwell tells the story of a brave aristocrat who, in the 17th century, toppled King Charles I from the English throne and thus ended a period of elitist monarchy. The picture presents Cromwell (Harris) as a reluctant hero who sets aside his desire to leave England (for a new life in the North American colonies), and concurrently presents Charles I (Alec Guinness) as an out-of-touch ruler who believes himself innately superior to his subjects. These are fascinating textures when placed in contrast with each other, and the best parts of the picture—aside from a few lively battle scenes—feature the main characters espousing their ideals. This being a historical drama, each main character is the head of a faction representing various interests, so there’s a lot of material related to the compromises Cromwell and Charles I make to keep their fragile alliances together. This is where the picture lost me, since I became exhausted trying to remember which character wanted which outcome for which combination of personal, political, and religious reasons.
Had Harris’ leading performance been as commanding as I expected—or had Guinness hit a broader range of notes than he does—it’s possible I would have found Cromwell more compelling, but, as I mentioned earlier, the material faced an uphill battle in terms of winning me over. I explain my reactions in detail not to fixate on my own experience, since I’m merely one viewer, but to explain that devotees of historical stories will undoubtedly regard Cromwell through very different eyes.