A reworking of Shakespeare's Hamlet, ROYAL DECEIT may lack the Bard's lyrical dialogue but it does boast some sensational action sequences and a truly top-notch cast.
In 6th century Denmark, young Prince Amled (Christian Bale), son of King Hardvendel (Tom Wilkinson), discovers that his uncle Fenge (Gabriel Byrne) murdered his father in order to gain the throne and the hand of his mother, Queen Geruth (Helen Mirren). Seething with rage, Amled pretends to be mad
in order to gain sympathy while he secretly plots revenge.
Believing that Amled is faking his madness, Fenge and his henchmen set him up with a woman--to whom they hope he'll confess his masquerade--but he acts in the same manner while in her company. In a moment alone with his mother, Amled discovers one of the henchmen under the bed trying to eavesdrop,
but Amled promptly kills him. He tells Geruth that he is quite sane and that Fenge is her husband's murderer. Disbelieving at first, Geruth promises Amled that she will act as if nothing is wrong in Fenge's presence, until the time that Amled can take his revenge.
When Fenge discovers the body of his henchman, he arranges to have Amled exiled on the pretence that his health needs to be seen to. Fenge actually sends the young man to his good friend the Duke of Lindsey with two escorts, Aslak and Torsten, and a stone tablet etched with orders to kill Amled.
Amled manages to change the writing on the tablet so that it orders the Duke to kill the escorts. Amled wins the duke's admiration by leading a bloody but victorious battle against a rival duke and then marrying his daughter Ethel (Kate Beckinsale); then heads back to Jutland to exact his
vengeance. Fenge is shocked to see the prince return, but holds a public celebration in a town meeting place to welcome him home. At the celebration, Amled seizes the opportunity to attack Fenge's henchmen and set the meeting place on fire. In the flames, Fenge and Amled struggle until Amled
finally kills his uncle. The next day, Geruth crowns her son and his wife the king and queen of Jutland.
Originally titled PRINCE OF JUTLAND, ROYAL DECEIT is epic in structure, but has an intimacy worthy of a small character study. As directed by Danish director Gabriel Axel (1987's BABETTE'S FEAST), the film proves that it is possible to tell a straightforward story about bravery, treachery, and
revenge in a period setting without a large budget. Axel makes remarkable use of a small cast, a few extras, limited location shooting, and surprisingly violent but bloodless battle scenes.
Without great fanfare, Axel's variation on "Hamlet" takes the familiar story back to its roots, in this case an ancient Danish legend. The cast perfectly incarnate their morally black-and-white roles: Byrne's dark Irish looks provide the perfect mask for Fenge's faked warmth and underlying
ruthlessness, while Bale turns in a surprisingly complex performance as Amled, avoiding flashy heroic moves (and, of course, Hamlet's sullen compulsion to muse on his fate). Unfortunately, the normally compelling Mirren gives a by-the-numbers, woman-standing-by-her-man performance that is unworthy
of her immense talents. (Violence, partial nudity.)
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