“The Last Queen is awash in the light of curated re-enactment but there are too few shadows in its pragmatic mise en scène. Regardless, the recreation of this veiled but pivotal moment in history from scratch is an inviting feat.”
Celebrated as the first feature costume drama from Algeria, The Last Queen elevates legend into historical record in the rediscovery of Zaphira, wife, mother, and leader. The second wife of King Salim Toumi, she is comfortable though not always content in the arrangement, cached away in her palace, interactions beyond its walls infrequent. It’s 1516, Algiers, and King Salim has brokered an alliance with notorious pirate Aruj Barbarossa to free the city-state from Spanish plunder. Against this tumultuous backdrop, Zaphira balances her position as well as that of her son, the young prince Yahia. When Salim is murdered, the queen must navigate a political storm to shore up personal survival. There are lasting implications. The Last Queen is an ornate historical drama set with a glimmering, feminist centerpiece: did the future of a state emerge from the wisdom, strength and sacrifice of a woman washed from time?
Filmmakers Adila Bendimerad and Damien Ounouri, in refreshingly collaborative work as co-directors and co-writers, present Zaphira as an attentive and resolute figure (the pair co-produced with Patrick Sobelman). Bendimerad also portrays the Queen, her cunning and insight palpable, in a forceful performance no doubt informed by her multi-hyphenate commitment to the project. Her approach is nonetheless instinctive, not a simple checklist of attributes. As Zaphira manoeuvres from King Salim (commanding Tahar Zaoui) to Barbarossa (magnetic Dali Benssalah), intrigue and violence mounts.
The story is straightforward with parallels between the battles waged by sovereign men in the fields of war and those engaged by noble women in the halls of court. Though two battles are staged as set pieces of the former, The Last Queen emphasizes the latter. Zaphira must consider the intentions of first wife Queen Chegga (Imen Noel) and Scandinavian slave Astrid (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) as she assesses her standing in the aftermath of King Salim’s assassination. These three women, with varying degrees of agency, attempt to negotiate not only security but enfranchisement as Aruj Barbarossa consolidates power. It’s a murderous task.
The Last Queen is painted in warm but muted colors, an earthy, regal palette nonetheless staid in its expression of court life and turmoil on the edges of a continent. Its scenes are composed with the deliberateness of a vignette found in a volume of a weathered text, unsurprising given the care and research taken to establish an accurate design for the film after centuries of invasion and foreign rule leaves much of Algerian, pre-Colonial built history scattered. Ounouri and Bendimerad, in collaboration with designer-architect Feriel Gasmi Issiakhem and costume designer Jean-Marc Mireté, unveil the intricate beauty of ruling class antiquity along the Mediterranean coast in sharp detail.
The filmmakers embrace the formalism of Western historical drama storytelling in their approach, though, so The Last Queen is familiar and palatable to viewers without a background in the history of Algiers. The conventionality of its aesthetic arrangements against the legend it unfolds dangles an offer of compelling scrutiny; utilizing the framework of history told to reveal history silenced is an enticing contrast. The work is sometimes flat, however, with its thoughtful recreations scaled in admirable precision and sheen but without much visual depth. The Last Queen is awash in the light of curated re-enactment but there are too few shadows in its pragmatic mise en scène. Regardless, the recreation of this veiled but pivotal moment in history from scratch is an inviting feat. The possibility of Zaphira, enshrined in legend, as an emblem to restore Algerian history outside of a male-centered, European context, is an ambitious premise, and Adila Bendimerad and Damien Ounouri shimmer with potential as dynamic feature filmmakers.