Screenwriter: Milos Forman, Jean Claude Carriere
Runtime: 114 min
Release Date: Out now
The paintings of master artist, Francisco Goya, are scarred by a dark and turbulent period of Spanish history. The inquisition was nearing its 300th year of tyranny, the French revolution spilled into Spanish borders and Napolean's brother, Joseph, took the throne. The anguish of Goya's later paintings and his Disasters of War series reflects the horrors of these times, much as war photographers do today. Yet Goya's work also betrays a macabre 'gallows' humour, titling the apocalyptic imagery 'This always happens,' and 'This is what you were born for' under etchings of mutilated bodies. Corrupt politics, affluent religion and a duplicitous central character should be celestial manna for a director capable of Amadeus (1984) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). However, something has gone awry for the usually impressive Milos Forman and his grandiose epic Goya's Ghosts is sketchy at best.
The title is at least appropriate as Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) is no more than an apparition in this story; an often jovial cut away laughing awkwardly at discussions of torture. He paints for the royal family whilst a revolution looms yet the only tension developed is whether he can paint the Queen to look beautiful. Scenes of print making and Tony Hart style walk throughs of the palace galleries will keep art lovers amused but it says little about the man himself. The loss of hearing Goya suffers seems incidental and tacked on as a concession to those expecting a fact based 'biopic'. The real story focuses on Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), a member of the brotherhood who is disgraced and turns into a Napoleonic revolutionary. It is a regret that he disappears for fifteen years of the plot as Bardem plays Lorenzo like a gentle giant; softly spoken on the outside, a menacing egomaniac on the inside. Despite the charismatic performance Lorenzo's transformation is rendered moot by the plot machinations and any profundity is clipped by the edges of the frame.
Natalie Portman is another victim of the broad stroke. Her character Ines also undergoes a dramatic transformation, this time through torture and she forgoes her well-defined eyebrows for a haggard and ravaged look. Sadly, the more terrible her situation, the pathetic murmuring about her baby for instance, the more laughable it becomes. Portman is obviously trying; she has the faltering walk and an ugly girn, but the audience hasn't had the chance to engage with her before watching her rapid decent into a mental case. The loose thread of drama by which the audience tenuously hangs involves Ines' search for her daughter. Yet the development of this story line is continually and frustratingly interrupted by soldiers bursting in and ruining it all, (nobody expects the Napoleonic revolution!)
At the very least this period drama could impress on the production value, but its shallowness is too distracting. Strip away the costumes and make up and revealed beneath are actors twiddling their thumbs. There are a lot of random shots including flustered chickens and men in various hats, in a desperate attempt at 'realism'. Yet it only depicts an elaborate set of well paid extras. The action sequences such as attacks on Madrid also fail to convince with their paint by numbers blandness; one is a distressed donkey, two, a soldier pushes a woman in puddle, three, a man is shot off a tall building. With so much torture and death it is a converse achievement that the film fails to evoke any sympathy in its characters. Goya's Ghosts lacks coherence and its sprawling plot line leaps forward in time from one catastrophe to the next. As Ines fights over a 'pillow baby' in an asylum it is possible to reflect on which of Goya's caption would best suit the film, perhaps 'One cannot look at this' or simply 'This is bad.'