Richard Chamberlain had already proved himself a fine actor before starring in this TV production of "The Man in the Iron Mask," but here he truly gives the performance of a lifetime. Performances, I should say, because he plays two different (VERY different) roles: King Louis XIV and his long lost twin brother, Phillippe.
Louis is a spoiled, infantile (his courtiers know perfectly well to deliberately lose at croquet lest they "risk another tantrum") and often cruel man, who lives in splendor while his subjects starve. He treats his long-suffering wife like garbage, openly flirting with and carrying on other women, and at one point he even viciously rips her wig off in public after calling her a "mountain of sallow flesh." Not surprisingly, no one likes Louis all that much; even his mother is hard pressed to say anything nice about him.
Meanwhile, Phillippe, totally unaware of his relation to Louis, is mysteriously kidnapped from his cozy home and thrown into the Bastille. But it's not what you think -- his kidnappers are the ageing Three Musketeers, who, fed up with their "water lily" of a ruler, have a plan to oust him and replace him with his identical twin, Phillippe. (Though Phillippe was born first and is therefore the rightful king, they insist that he rule as Louis XIV because of France's instability.) The Bastille was a "safe place" to stash Phillippe, or so they thought; at least two people, upon accidentally seeing Phillippe, are struck by his resemblance to Louis. One of them reports to Fouquet, the king's closest adviser. Upon verifying Phillippe's identity, Fouquet breaks the news to Louis, who, quite rightly fearing usurpation, hatches a cruel plan: imprisoning Phillippe for life in a run down castle in a distant part of France. But even that isn't enough: "No one must look upon his face," Louis tells Fouquet. Hence the iron mask, which is locked upon poor Phillippe in a gut-wrenching sequence.
The rest of the movie is about the Three Musketeers rescuing Phillippe, telling him the truth, and proceeding ahead with their plans. Meanwhile, Phillippe falls in love with Louise, a pretty lady of the court who the king is also unsuccessfully trying to romance (and as it turns out, Fouquet likewise tried to romance, and when she spurned his advances, he had her father thrown in the Bastille), and there's plenty of wonderfully intricate plotting.
While the performances are strong all around (except for maybe Jenny Agutter as Louise), it's Richard Chamberlain who carries the entire movie. Phillippe starts out an ordinary person, but his grotesque mistreatment starts to make him almost savage. Not surprisingly, the desire for revenge burns white-hot inside him, and he finally gets to realize it at the end. He also has a remarkable moment when, after having assumed Louis XIV's identity, he meets his mother for the first time: he is so emotional that he can barely get the words out, yet manages to cover it by telling her how beautiful she looks. The queen mother, who of course doesn't know his true identity, beams and says, "My Louis?" as if wondering that maybe now she can finally truly love her son.
Meanwhile, his turn as Louis is admirably restrained. Most actors would not be able to resist chewing the scenery while playing such a vile, decadent character, but Chamberlain instead gives a nuanced, surprisingly subtle performance. Louis is thoroughly despicable, and Chamberlain is clearly having fun playing such a juicy villain, but he doesn't go over the top.
Patrick McGoohan also shines as the clever, vain, heartless Fouquet. He often speaks in a type of growl that reminds me of Jeremy Irons, and his refined sadism is chilling to watch. It makes it all the more satisfying that, in the end, Fouquet is deceived by a simple seamster -- and that he himself is the one who seals his own fate by incorrectly naming Louis as the pretender.