Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Queen (2006)

The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006)

Queen Elizabeth II (Hellen Mirren) sits still as a commissioned artist paints her portrait. It's a striking image: the queen in complete regalia, Mirren's face shows off ages of experience and wisdom; then the queen breaks the silence and asks the artist if he has voted. The artist says yes, and adds that it's not for Blair. In her reply, the queen finally reveals a human weakness: she envies the common people and their right to vote. In that reply, we are impressed with the logic that the queen is different --- a figurehead, a symbol, an unnecessary obstruction to British mass democracy. Then, the artist reminds Elizabeth that despite that, it is still her government. The queen smiles with reassurance. Again, we are reminded of her stature. Stephen Frears gives us an impressive profile of the queen, from toe to head --- Mirren is the queen.

We know from history and common knowledge that Tony Blair (as portrayed by Michael Sheen) will win the election. The queen wakes up to the news, followed by the ceremonial task of inviting the newly elected prime minister to build a government in her name. Frears quickly establishes a conflict or a dilemma that will pervade his film: Blair's anti-monarchist wife quickly reminds her husband that he is elected by the people as opposed to the queen who was merely placed there by succession. The initial meet-up of the queen and Blair is delightful: Blair clumsily parades his youth, inexperience, and accompanying charm; the queen is quick to sermon, remind, and point out that Blair is merely one of the many prime ministers she has worked with (specifically citing her experience as an inexperienced monarch in the guidance of Winston Churchill).

The Queen mainly revolves around the monarchy's experience with the untimely death of Princess Diana. A lengthy montage of archived videos introduces us to the tragedy of Diana: how she became an unintentional celebrity after her break-up with Prince Charles; how it was that fact that turned her into a viable target for the bloodthirsty paparazzi which eventually contributed to her and her then boyfriend's demise. A tug of war of public approval ensues when the monarchy refuses to honor the ex-princess, while Blair geniusly declares Diana as the "people's princess." The queen stubbornly upholds tradition as the prime minister quickly triumphs by having the same senses and emotions as the common British people.

We go back to the film's initial scenes wherein we are prepare by Frears of the likely dilemma that will ensue. The rest of the film struggles to flesh out the monarchy's sense of tradition in the midst of public disaster. Amazingly, Frears does not take sides; while the monarchy's traditionalist has historically almost paved the way for its destruction, Frears depicts the traditionalist stance as strength and fortitude and Elizabeth's timely bowing down to change as nobility. It all boils down to Peter Morgan's witty screenplay and Mirren's careful yet effective portrayal as the queen.

Morgan pretty much makes up most of the private events that ensue throughout the film. I'd like to think of Morgan's mechanics as akin to the same tabloid culture that contributed to Diana's tragedy. He paints a very human portrait to the stoic and very unmaternal public figure who rarely makes public appearances, and Mirren pumps it up with her fantastic mix of monarchial finesse and humanist timing. It's the entire royal family that is given fictional personalities here: Prince Philip (James Cromwell) as dictatorial husband to the queen, perhaps because his machismo is hugely disadvantaged by his wife's place in history, Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) as a spineless, wretchedly emotional, and pushover twit, the queen mother (Sylvia Syms) as someone who is just waiting for her time (in a humorous episode, she complains that Diana's public funeral is an exact copy of her own funeral she has designed herself) and acknowledges her unimportance in public or familial affairs. Morgan makes us uncomfortably too close to the family; we witness side remarks, familial politics, emotional breakdowns, stress, disputes, sweet talks.

In the end, it works. Our curiosity as to the human side of these modern monarchs are quelled by Morgan and the actors and actresses' creations. Frears cleverly levels the pervading mythos of royalty and public opinion, without necessarily throwing down a real public personality.


Anonymous said...

In reality, the Queen's reactions to Diana's death surely covered a range of ambivalent feelings, and was not just a cold insistence on tradition and protocol, as suggested by the film.

Prince Charles tells his mother, "The Diana we knew was very different than the Diana idolized by the public", but this truth is never developed in the film.  I'll mention it here.

While the "people's princess" remains the icon of superficial popular culture, the Royals knew a very different, darker character behind the facades of glamour and pseudo-compassion.

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. 

Clinically, it's clear that the Royal family did not cause her "problems". Rather, Diana 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.

In reality, things are not always as the tabloids or movies would have us believe.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks for the information, redtown...

True, the film's coverage regarding Diana is quite one-sided, but I thought treating the Diana tragedy as a rallying point, an impetus for probable change in an establishment that relies on tradition for its continuation, was a necessary tool for Frears lest he delves into ambivalence and debates within his film. And of course, Frears, despite the numerous news footages and historical points, knows that this isn't reality he's dealing with, but an alternate universe retelling of the Diana episode, if you will... something like Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette.

Anonymous said...

Helen Mirren's performance was a feat in itself. I loved the film. Loved it so it's hard to express in words how I feel about it.