A rambling, 1950s-set comedy positioned at the intersection of the film world and left-wing politics, The Queen of Spain suggests a Spanish analogue to Hail, Caesar! Like Joel and Ethan Coen’s film, Fernando Trueba’s latest revolves around the making of an eponymously titled historical epic, which allows for numerous gags about film production in Hollywood’s Golden Age, touching on everything from flubbed takes to actors’ sex lives to the political ramifications of historical representation. Though calmer and more straightforwardly plotted than the Coens’ spastic comedy, The Queen of Spain paradoxically feels even more disjointed, a pleasant but inert collection of scenes and incidents that never coheres into a unified whole.
A sequel to Trueba’s The Girl of Your Dreams, The Queen of Spain opens with director Blas Fontiveros (Antonio Resines) returning to his native Spain years after he was thought to have died in a Nazi concentration camp. Subsequent to his reconnecting with his filmmaking friends, Blas is hired onto a lavish Spanish-American co-production about the life of Queen Isabella I, a topic chosen to appeal to Francisco Franco, Spain’s fascist leader. Isabella is to be played by Blas’s estranged ex-wife, Macarena Granada (Penelope Cruz), a Hollywood starlet unaware that he’s still alive. But before Macarena arrives in Spain for the shoot, Blas is picked up by Franco’s thugs and thrown in a prison labor camp. When she discovers this, she and her fellow cast and crew hatch a plan to break him out and transport him to safety in France.
Trueba displays an obvious fondness for classical Hollywood filmmaking, particularly the movies produced by Samuel Bronston at Madrid’s Chamartin Studios, which include Anthony Mann’s El Cid and Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings. But while the director lovingly recreates some old-school effects like matte paintings and miniature sets, he treats every scene—whether it’s a gag about an extra ruining a battle scene or Blas being nearly crushed to death by a pile of rocks—with the same laidback tone. Meanwhile, narrative strands, such as a romance between Macarena and the production’s head grip (Chino Darin), are picked up and put down without establishing any dramatic stakes. Rather than developing a distinct comedic voice or shaping the film’s dramaturgy, Trueba seems content simply to lean on his amiable cast to keep our attention through scene after scene of meandering, repetitive talkiness.
Trueba also fails to probe the political implications of The Queen of Spain’s period milieu, which is particularly confounding given the filmmaker’s evident anti-fascist sympathies. Even for those virulently opposed to Franco’s rule, his regime comes off as little more than a mild inconvenience. The film is brimming with intriguing historical references, such as a blacklisted American screenwriter (Mandy Patinkin) who, in an apparent nod to Hollywood Ten member Alvah Bessie, is said to have fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. But clever little nods like this can’t make up for the fact that, in Trueba’s hands, all of the past—film shoots, labor camps, even Franco (Carlos Areces) himself, who appears briefly, depicted as a soft-spoken buffoon—is invariably reduced to the same thing: tepid light comedy.