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THE KING'S DAUGHTERS (article first published : 2003-03-29)

It's the late 17th century in Normandy, France, and the focus is on Madame de Maintenon, an ambitious courtesan in the court of King Louis XIV a woman whose devotion to Catholicism apparently influenced the king's repression of the Protestants in France.

Played impeccably by the unfailingly good Isabelle Huppert, last seen locally in the unsettling The Piano Teacher, Madame de Maintenon uses her social position to devote herself to the education of young women at a time when this is not exactly de rigeur.

She establishes a boarding school, Saint-Cyr, where she chooses 250 young girls of noble birth, but whose parents have fallen on bad times, to be raised as elegant and informed young ladies - free spirits who will work towards opportunities in life that Madame de Maintenon hopes will see them avoiding the road she herself has been forced to travel.

However, Madame de Maintenon's obsessive plans start to unravel when the students reach their teens and blossoming womanhood, and get a grip on the power she employed in the past.

The turning point comes when two of the most noteworthy of students, close friends (Nina Meurisse and Morgan More), upset Madame de Maintenon by choosing to recite profane and raunchy verses by Racine at a school performance.

In a bid to steer the girls away from such matters, Racine is commissioned to "write something without passion". But the pupils soon realise that this, too, can be swayed towards a passionate interpretation, one which soon gets young male members of the court hot under the collar. It is at this point that Madame de Maintenon puts aside all her earlier thoughts of freedom and expression and introduces strict discipline at the school, which includes the removal of all reading matter, mass confessionals and the no-nonsense leadership of a stern priest (Simon Reggiana).

Offering some insight into the power of religion, free thought and the duality of woman, The King's Daughters - in French with subtitles - is a sumptous period drama, rich in detail.

Unfortunately, notwithstanding fine acting all round - in particular from newcomers Meurisse and More, who were reportedly chosen from 3,000 young hopefuls - it suffers from slow pacing and tends to overstay its welcome at 119 minutes.

The film, for the record, was made three years ago and, is directed and co-penned by Patricia Mazuy. It is based on La Miason d'Esther, a novel by Yves Dangerfield. Rating: 6/10. - Billy Suter




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