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In 19th century England, captain George Brummell is an upper-class dandy. He has to leave the army after having insulted the crown prince. This gives him the opportunity to start a smear campaign against the prince. The prince, who is tired of all the yes-men around him, hires him as his chief advisor. Written by
George Bryan "Beau" Brummell (1778-1840) was a leader of fashion in Regency England and a close friend of the Prince Regent, although they eventually quarrelled. Brummell was eventually forced to leave Britain because of debts and spent the latter part of his life in poverty in France. He appears to have a considerable influence on the men's fashions of his day, helping to popularise cravats, trousers instead of knee-breeches, natural hair instead of wigs and to make fashionable the restrained, sober elegance which was to be the keynote of gentlemen's costume in the nineteenth century in place of the ostentatious dandyism of the eighteenth. Outside the field of gents' tailoring, however, he was not a figure of any great historical significance, so it is perhaps not surprising that this film is not an academically serious biopic, but rather a celebration of a colourful figure in a colourful age.
The film is far from being historically accurate, especially as regards chronology. The events depicted here (the Regency Crisis of 1788, the Prince's marriage to Caroline of Brunswick, Brummell's rise in the Prince's favour, his fall from grace, the death of King George III in 1820 and Brummel's own death in 1840) historically cover a period in excess of fifty years, but here they are presented as occurring over a much shorter timescale. Rather oddly, the villain of the piece is William Pitt the Younger, widely regarded as one of Britain's greatest Prime Ministers but presented here as a cunning, power-hungry schemer who refuses to allow King George III to be certified as mad (although he quite obviously is) in order to protect his own power. (The relationship between Pitt and the King depicted here more closely resembles that between the Austrian Chancellor Prince Metternich and the feeble-minded Emperor Ferdinand I who, for political reasons, was never declared to be insane). In reality Pitt died in 1806, but here he is shown as outliving not only George III but also Brummell.
The film's politics are, in fact, rather inconsistent. Early on, Brummell, whose family although wealthy are of fairly humble stock, is portrayed as something of a radical filled with the spirit of the French Revolution and complaining about the class divisions within British society. Later on, however, he becomes as the Prince's friend an arch-reactionary, encouraging the future George IV to defy Parliament and to rule more as an autocrat than as a constitutional monarch. Brummell's justification for this apparent change of heart is that he feels that the Prince will make an admirably liberal ruler, far more liberal than Pitt, but the character played by Peter Ustinov does not really make us feel that this confidence is well-founded.
Stewart Granger was known for playing dashing heroes in costume dramas, so was well-suited to the lead role, although it contains less in the way of physical action than some of his other parts from this period. Ustinov gives a good comic performance as the petulant, self-pitying Prince, and Robert Morley a more serious one as the mad old King. I was, however, surprised to see Elizabeth Taylor, already a major star in her early twenties, in a comparatively minor role. She plays Brummell's love-interest Lady Patricia Belham, although he eventually loses her to another man. Apparently Lady Patricia, a fictitious character not found in the play on which the screenplay was based, was inserted to allay any suspicions on the part of the ultra-puritanical American censors that the friendship between Brummell and the Prince might be homosexual in nature.
"Beau Brummell" is not the sort of film which is likely to please the historian, but then it was never intended to. It was clearly intended as an enjoyable period romp and, to some extent, still works on that level. 6/10
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