SIFF Review: Ludwig II

King Ludwig II was so outlandish, so brazen in his flamboyance, that over time even his myths have developed myths. From the little I know about his life, I’ll speculate that the directors of his latest biopic, Marie Noelle and Peter Sehr, weren’t necessarily as concerned with historical fidelity or dispelling myths as they were with telling a particular story about him: that he was a romantic idealist, so sure that art could overcome the horrors of the real world that when his plans failed he was driven irreversibly into despair and delusion.

It’s a good story. I’m into it. But a great movie it is not. Somewhere after the midpoint, after a spectacularly dramatic climax (overdramatic, but it’s Ludwig, so go for it) and dénouement, the film tries for yet another act and runs right off the rails.

Its biggest crime, by a country mile, is jettisoning Sabin Tambrea, who plays Ludwig as a young man, in favor of a more age-appropriate Sebastian Schipper when the character ages. Huge mistake. If the story is great, it pales in comparison to how great Tambrea’s performance is. He’s like Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia, or Viggo Mortenson in GI Jane, just acting his fucking socks of while the rest of the movie teeters tenuously around him, threatening to collapse from all the Drama. It’s the role of a lifetime, and he knocks it out of the park.

Tambrea is sculpturally beautiful, as if Donatello had sculpted Benedict Cumberbatch, elongating him into a lithe and willowy thing of grace. He moves both primly and confidently, conveying Ludwig’s shimmering idealism, abiding faith, tragic naiveté, and surprisingly determined will with subtlety and intensity in turn. I could have watched him all day, even with the overblown Wagnerian score bombasting around him. (And judging from the tumblrs I dug up, I'm not alone.)

And the plot, so long as he was in it, carried on respectably enough. Ludwig becomes king far before he’s ready for such a responsibility, and is determined to replace his armies with orchestras. He brings Richard Wagner back from exile to lead his crusade for the arts, and is (or is not?) to (maybe?) undermine his own authority. (Does the movie even know one way or the other? Hard to say.) Either way, everyone else thinks Ludwig’s being played, and he has to send his idol away for political reasons. Then when war breaks out among his neighboring countries, Ludwig is forced to enter Bavaria into it, nearly going full-throttle mad in the process and simultaneously trying not to fall in love with his handsome horse master. He recovers on both fronts, more or less, and determines to marry (a woman), but finds that he can’t go through with it, and bit by bit his hold on his kingdom, along with his sanity, begins to crumble.

Sounds pretty good, right? Then a bunch of other stuff happens, castle building, blah blah, insanity, accidental suicide or something, the end.

So in summary. I’d recommend watching Tambrea's bits (and setting up your own Tumblr for him), much the same way I recommend watching only the parts in Julie and Julia with Meryl (on repeat, potentially), and skipping the rest.

{Ludwig II screens at the 39th Annual Seattle International Film Festival on Saturday, 6/1, 12:00pm at the Kirkland Performance Center.} 

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