The real ghost in Milos Forman's Goya's Ghosts is Goya himself; the movie has very little to do with the legendary artist or his work.
Actually, Goya's Ghosts is more like a detailed but laborious History Channel special about Spain in the late 18th century. Through Spanish painter Francisco Goya's (Stellan Skarsgard) eyes, the drama begins in 1792, where the Spanish Inquisition has raised its ugly head once again. Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), an enigmatic member of the powerful Spanish clergy, becomes infatuated with Goya's beautiful teenage muse, Ines (Natalie Portman). When Ines is brought in for questioning, tortured into a confession of heresy (of which she is clearly innocent) and incarcerated, Lorenzo takes an even further and, er, more personal interest in her. Jumping ahead 15 years, Napoleon has invaded Spain and all Inquisition prisoners are released. An irreparably damaged Ines goes to see Goya to ask him to help her find the daughter she claims she had in prison. He tries to help and ends up finding a new and improved Lorenzo instead. Having left the Church disgraced, he is now married and an ambassador for the French. But then things don't go so well for Lorenzo when the tables are turned and the Spanish rise up against their French oppressors.
The casting is very odd in this one. The only ones seemingly well placed are the always good Bardem (The Sea Inside) as the conflicted priest, and Skarsgard (Pirates of the Caribbeans) as the famous painter. The Swedish actor especially does a nice job as Goya, who plays the political game with the Church and the royal family while secretly sketching subversive drawings of his people's plight, to be distributed to the people. Just wish there was more of him. Unfortunately, it's Portman who is miscast as the doomed Ines (and later as the illegitimate daughter). When Ines is released from prison, the actress looks like she's been through a living hell, but she overdoes it, twisting her mouth and walking in a stilted manner in an almost caricature way. Portman can be quite good, but a period piece like this one just does not suit her. And Randy Quaid as the King of Spain? All wrong.
Director Milos Forman is one of those enigmatic talents who takes a long time between films. The last film he directed was the 1999 Man on the Moon, not necessarily a classic but worthy of attention. He's also responsible for such Oscar winners as Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, so, in other words, even if we have to wait for his films, we usually aren't disappointeduntil now. In Goya's Ghosts, Forman's cinematic scope is grand and lush, but he loses focus, trying to combine history with an intimate story without great effect in either direction. As with other far more interesting period pieces about artists, such as the compelling Girl with a Pearl Earring, about 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, or even Forman's own Amadeus, about Mozart, Goya's Ghosts would have worked better if the action was centered on the creative work, and how the surrounding turmoil influenced Goya. The few moments we see Goya paint, especially the scene in which he creates one of his famous drawings, are fascinating. But then we go back to being just as detached as Goya seems to be, watching history unfold. At least we can take notes in case there's a test later.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 stars.