[minor spoilers ahead]
Bathory, which has been sold in some markets under the title Bathory – Countess of Blood, is not a vampire film. I am not even sure if it is a film at all – its length and structure suggest a 3-part mini-series, but I could find nothing to support this suspicion apart from the fact that both Slovak and Czech television contributed to the funding of this project. Be that as it may, on the cheap collection DVD on which I discovered Bathory (together with 2 vampire films and a documentary), it is presented as a 134-minute-long film.
Given this context of films with which I had bought Bathory, I naturally had assumed that this was a vampire film. Instead, it is a semi-fictional historical drama with hints of the supernatural. The central character is of course the Countess Elizabeth Báthory, played by Anna Friel (Pushing Daisies). Báthory is a historical figure who has gained notoriety (especially in recent decades), because she allegedly killed hundreds of people, bathing in their blood, etc., etc., making her name a recurring element in many pieces of modern vampire fiction.
This film is not a documentary, no investigation into the historical truth. From the story and from the opening monologue, it seems to me that the intention of this project was to imagine a middle-ground scenario in which the Countess could be both guilty and a victim at the same time. That seems to be the central idea along which the screenplay has been developed. Along the way, there are a lot of references to historical figures and historical wars and conflicts, with a lot of Hungarian national pride on display.
This is a European co-production, led by Slovakia and the Czech Republic. But the main cast is British. Apart from Friel, you will find Hans Matheson (The Tudors) and Vincent Regan playing main characters, with internationally renowned Czech actor Karel Roden being the only non-Brit in a leading role.
Major supporting characters are played by Antony Byrne, Slovak stage-actress Deana Horváthová, and Czech actors Bolek Polívka (Home Care) and Jirí Mádl.
The film opens with a scene in which Elizabeth and her husband Ferenc (later played by Regan) are betrothed to each other as children, in order to connect their powerful families. The film very soon moves to a much later time period, in which we Elizabeth is mostly alone (for years on end, it seems) and in charge of ruling their lands while Ferenc is off fighting the Turks. In spite of all that happens over the course of the film (which I will not spoil here), the film assures us that Elizabeth loves her husband. And his death (which occurs rather late in the film) hits her pretty hard. Not just emotionally, but also because rival dynasties are eyeing her lands and possessions.
The conflicts that form the background to this story are manifold. There is a sectarian conflict in that part of Europe, between Protestants and Catholics. There are regional rivalries between various noble houses, and there is conflict of national interests, with Hungarians fearing to be swallowed up by the nascent Habsburg Empire. All of this is trumped by the Turkish invasion of Europe, against which all these competing parties unite.
With its emphasis on multi-layered jealousies and rivalries, and the endless potential for betrayal, this film could have played out like Game of Thrones. But since Elizabeth is the only focus of the film and the motivations of all other players are not fully represented, the film is of an entirely different character and structure.
The story is told in three chapters (which is one reason why I assume that this may have been intended as a 3-part mini-series). The first mainly focuses on Elizabeth’s relationship with her husband (Regan) and with the painter Caravaggio (Matheson). Caravaggio is probably the only major character whose inclusion in these events is completely fictional. The second chapter mainly focuses on her relationship with a local “witch”, while the third chronicles the decline of her fortunes.
The film follows the historical fact and circumstances closely in a lot of ways, and also uses the real names of all the people involved. That signals a lot of research on the parts of the writers. A I said before, the writers seem to have tried to move within the moderate centre of Báthory opinions. They accurately present the ambitions of her rivals (although they fail to explain these ambitions) and the bias involved in the accusations made against her. But they also incorporate the believe by many historians that Elizabeth was not completely innocent and was involved in some violence (for example against servants) – which has to be seen within the social context of the time, which is acknowledged by historians as well as by the writers of the film. The writers finally highlight a number of issues that may have been open to misinterpretation (either in good faith, or by deliberation), such as medical research and procedures. I feel that in the end the film comes down on the side of Elizabeth by presenting her mainly as a victim of a conspiracy, but, as I said, the film highlights her flaws as well. The element that signals that the writers are siding with Elizabeth is the fact that they imply that she may have been drugged by her rivals, leaving the option on the table that some of her violent outbursts may have been the result of these drugs.
The story becomes more and more convoluted towards the end. The filmmakers want to tell us that Elizabeth has been set up and that she is surrounded by traitors, but that could have been told once, and in five minutes. It feels more like we are told this a dozen of times over the course of fifty minutes. If this was a mini-series, as I assume, than this problem might have its origin in the fact that they needed to give all three parts the same running time. Somehow, the pace often feels off in this film.
There is also the problem that we are somewhat spoiled by the very efficient structure of historical fiction in The Tudors and similar shows of recent years. Bathory, which was filmed between 2005 and 2007, just before the premiere of The Tudors, cannot compete with that neat structure and relatively tight pace, even if the film has many other elements (like sets and costumes) that are almost as good as in The Tudors.
The element that hurts the film the most are the two monks played by Polívka and Mádl. They are used as an element connecting people and events, and there seems to be a desire by the writers to use them both as minor deus ex machina instruments and as sources for comic relief. Polívka’s monk also has an endless amount of steampunk gadgets at his disposal that are completely out of touch with the tone of this film. Nothing about these two characters fits the story particularly well.
Despite a number of weaknesses, I believe that Bathory is still worth watching if you like shows like The Tudors. And I believe that the performances by Friel and Roden help to save this film.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10