Sunday, December 03, 2006

"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

"One will have the siu mai, the General Tso's chicken, and a glass of Tsingtao."

Last night I finally went to see Stephen Frears' new flick The Queen. I can't disagree with the glowing praise dished out to the main actors. While Alex Jennings (Prince Charles) comes across as a sub-par impressionist doing a cliched turn, poor James Cromwell's Duke of Edinburgh was woefully underwritten, and Helen McCrory foreshadows every unsavory element we have learned about Cherie Blair since 1997 in her characterization, both Helen Mirren as the Queen and Michael Sheen as the Right Honourable Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, MP were stunning.

For all it's brilliant performances however, The Queen is pure speculation. And while that might seem like the acme of obviousness, Frears did such a masterful job injecting an air of authenticity into screenwriter Peter Morgan's projection of the unknowable events behind the closed doors that his version will inevitably be seen as the account, regardless of the facts. Like one of Shakespeare's history plays written during the reign of the first Elizabeth (think Henry V or Richard III) Morgan and Frears have created a definitive fiction that will long drown out any factual rendering that will emerge as years pass.

As Shakespeare's histories were grounded in the writer's present rather than the historical past, so The Queen is much more a product of the intellectual and political climate in 2006 than a faithful attempt at a recreation of the seismic events surrounding the death of Diana Spencer in 1997. Since his days as the invocator of the "People's Princess", Blair has fallen from favour, seen now by the filmmakers and their friends a less a dashing young modernizer and more as an isolated and authoritarian warmonger. There is no escaping seeing this impressionistic sketch of the eager and earnest Blair through a filter of later misdeeds. The private thoughts of the Queen however remain as unknowable today as they were in 1997. Helen Mirren was handed a fantastic gift: a woman instantly recognisable physically but emotionally a blank canvas. A gifted actor like Mirren was able to splash colour or daub subtle hues onto as the script demanded unfettered by any real need to faithfully present reality.

Frears' use of the supporting royal characters underlined this point. With Charles presented as a craven and repressed egotist, Prince Philip* as a man whose main response to crisis is to shoot at wild game, the presence of Diana as a hateful cuckoo still tormenting the family in death, the off-screen William and Harry as incoherent whirlwinds of raging grief, and the Queen Mother as a booze loving upper-crust version of a down-to-earth cockney matron, the Queen appeared not only isolated from the public but also from her loopy family. This freed up the character to appear yet more symathetic: who doesn't love the story of one against the world?

When the Queen does interact with the world however, we see mixed results. In what was the most arresting scene in the film, the Queen cries gently while awaiting assistance with her broken Land Rover. For once alone physically as well as mentally, she issues discreet sobs until she spots a magnificent stag, at which point she is soothed by the beautiful obliviousness of nature. (Mirren had done such a good job of beguiling me with her performance by this point that the image of a crying Queen Elizabeth II brought me up unexpectedly short- as children Brits half-joke that the Queen has someone to go to the toilet for her, so removed from human bodily function does she seem.) Life goes on whatever the travails of humans.

When the Queen is required to interact with the human world however she doesn't quite manage with such gentle grace. It is never fully explored in the film if her (obviously genuine) concern for the well-being of her grandchildren is also a means to draw inwards (a reaction to death not unknown in her family- Queen Victoria went into years of private mourning after the passing of her husband and it took the considerable skills of Disraeli to coax her back into the public eye and the public's heart). There is also the matter of duty: much is made by the royal camp of duty, service, and even a passing reference to the Divine Right of Kings gets in.

Left unanswered however is what is the appropriate duty of a Head of State- not a private individual- in the face of the collective grief of her subjects? I think the filmmakers innate personal aversion to the passions of the mob prevented a full exploration of this idea (Frears implies that the public are to be pandered to but never trusted to know their own minds). Brash Liverpudllians sobbing in the street over a woman they never met are the same people who wear man-made fabrics by choice and don't see the point of conceptual art: the British version of Red State Rednecks, to be puzzled at by literary types but never embraced. To the end, despite all her compromises with modernity and celebrity culture, the Queen still begrudges having to travel part of the distance towards her subjects. And yet this rigid selfishness is presented as part of the character's moral fibre.

It would still say that despite the more troubling undertones (or rather because of them) The Queen ranks as one of the best films of the past 10 years. Just don't watch it for what you can see, but rather for what you cannot.

(*Philip, desipite his anachronistic rendering in this film, was ironically the lead actor in the modernisation of the Royal Family's relationship with their subjects, starting with his convincing the Queen to allow BBC cameras shoot a documentary on the family in the 1960s. It has been long acknowledged that this marked the begining of the ever-more clamorous demands for access and openess that culminated so unexpectedly in the events The Queen seeks to portray).


SkookumJoe said...

I always liked Philip. Feel a bit sorry for him really, having to put up with the rest of them.

Margaret Evans Porter said...

Wow. Awesome review. I truly look forward to this flick--even more so having read your commentary.

Within 24 hours of Diana's death, we touched down in London. It was the most surreal experience of my life, watching zombie Britons make their weeping way to Kensington or St James's with their cellophane-wrapped tributes.

And Her Maj's television address, when it finally occurred, was equally surreal.

I'm fairly certain I'll enjoy a fictionalised version of that time far better than the real thing. Which was positively creepy.

Listmaker said...

damn, this is a good review. i wish i could write like this.

you should start a weasel at the movies.

weasel said...

I had to escort Prince Philip when I was a cadet. Cor, what a palaver that was.

Thanks for the kind words about the review. You would think I would have more things to say about the movies, what with Country Mouse running a cinema, but I only ever seem to go and see Wes Anderson-y things, gloriously complicated spy/international relations films, earnest docs about evil luminati, and poised Brit-flicks about repressed butlers or mad bluebloods, or James Bond films once every 3 to 4 years.

redtown said...

"Frears implies that the public are to be pandered to but never trusted to know their own minds."

In Diana's case, this was true. For while she remains the poster girl of superficial, popular culture, the Royal family had to cope with her real personality.

Both Diana and her brother, Charles Spencer, suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder caused by their mother's abandoning them as young children.  A google search reveals that Diana is considered a case study in BPD by mental health professionals.

For Charles Spencer, BPD meant insatiable sexual promiscuity (his wife was divorcing him at the time of Diana's death).

For Diana, BPD meant intense insecurity and insatiable need for attention and affection which even the best husband could never fulfill. 

From a BPD perspective, it's clear that the Royal family did not cause her "problems". Rather, she brought her multiple issues into the marriage, and the Royal family was hapless to deal with them.

Her illness, untreated, sowed the seeds of her fast and unstable lifestyle, and sadly, her tragic fate.