Tony Palmer has one of the more shall we say eclectic resumes in film, having worked on such disparate projects as the mammoth multi-hour miniseries Wagner with Richard Burton and the psychedelic wonderment of Frank Zappa's 200 Motels, not to mention a host of other projects in virtually all genres of music. The man obviously loves music and musicians, and is thankfully not a snob about what constitutes art. That approach works well for this sometimes rambling but always fascinating film, part biography of Henry Purcell, and part French Lieutenant's Woman conceit of actors putting on a play about Purcell. Not much is known about the historical Purcell, whose music nonetheless survives today as one of the great glories of the Restoration (it's been used in many films, notably Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange). The film dances around this paucity of information by bouncing back and forth--sometimes jarringly so--between Purcell's time and early to mid-60's England, a time of a different type of cultural and political upheaval. Though Palmer is obviously trying to draw parallels (sometimes ironic, often not) between the two periods, unless one is an avid student of both periods of English history, there may be occasional head-scratching as to what exactly is going on (in fact, the film has aired repeatedly on television with only the Purcell time period extant).
Even with the occasional confusion, the film is simply wonderful to behold on any number of levels: the Restoration period is recreated with loving detail, with sumptious costumes and production design, and Purcell's music is simply breathtakingly performed, conducted by the renowned John Eliot Gardiner. The performances by Simon Callow, Michael Ball, Corin Redgrave and a host of fantastic British character actors are uniformly excellent.
This was the last screenplay worked on by the legendary John Osborne, and his mordant wit and intelligence is well on display (my favorite interchange was in the "modern" time, when the struggling playwright/actor is asked by one of his floozy girlfriends if there's a part in his play for her. "No," he responds curtly, "it's a work about genius.") But the entire screenplay crackles with that certain flair that only the British seem able to craft unerringly, a la Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter.