Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Queen--A Review

Mr. Sweetie and I had a date last Friday--even before the Oscar nominations came out, we went to see The Queen. I believe I may have mentioned that Helen Mirren is awesome? Because she is. She just is.

And her transformation into Elizabeth II is amazing. At first look, it's difficult to see Helen Mirren because she has turned into someone else. Even as the movie unspools, I found myself seeing the Queen of England, and wondering whether her glasses shouldn't be a bit smaller to be more fashionable.

If you read the synopses and reviews, they will tell you that the movie focusses on the days following Princess Diana's death and the Palace's response and lack thereof. Which is like saying that Jane Eyre is a story about the social position of governesses in Victorian England. Which is to say, The Queen uses the days following Princess Diana's death to sketch a time of profound change in England. Elizabeth (and even more so, Prince Philip) embody the old guard, the "Greatest Generation" and thier response to the death is bound up in their experience of "Enduring England" during the Blitz of WWII.

The movie highlights the incredible contrast between the quiet and eternal changlessness of the Royals, and the chaos of modern life as lived by the newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair and his family. His wife is caustically anti-Royalist, and their home is a jumble of mismatched slipcovers and scattered toys. It is less decor than "it was on sale/in my parents' basement/sitting at the curb with a 'Free' sign on it." Tony Blair is bright-eyed and always working in his shirt-sleeves, carrying on conversations on cordless phones. The Queen, in contrast, lives in quiet order, fully and carefully dressed in suit, pumps, hose and handbag. When the two first meet, Blair is unfamiliar with the protocols, and the Queen has to correct him "No, Mr. Blair, it is I who ask the question. Will you form a government in my name? If you agree, traditionally, this is when you say 'yes.'"

The death of Diana is where these two different world views collide. The Royal family is on vacation at Balmoral when the news arrives. The Queen is saddened, Charles is heartbroken and worried about the boys. Philip is angry and dismayed and an absolute prig about royal protocol. Meanwhile, Tony Blair is seeing the public mood in London and trying to keep the Royals from committing PR suicide. Cherie Blair can't understand why her husband is trying to prevent the collapse of the monarchy and she is disgusted at his passion about the institution. The Queen doesn't care for Mr. Blair, and would have preferred a different PM, and so is reluctant to take his advice, but comes to see him as a valuable advisor.

In the end, Blair manages to move the immovable object, and the Queen flies a flag over Buckingham Palace at half mast (this is an invention, as the only flag that traditionally flies over royal residences is the royal standard, signifying the Queen is either there or not). She also agrees to make a television appearance addressing the matter, something that had never been done before. Tellingly, she submits her speech to Blair, and without argument accepts his edits. The final scene takes place several months later, the first meeting they have had face-to-face since the first scene. Here, it is clear they have both changed: Blair is more comfortable and willing to step afoul of royal protocol in order to be himself. The Queen is willing to unbend, and invites him to walk with her in the gardens, stating that she finds "these meetings" to be more successful when PMs are walkers.

Part of the charm of the movie is the "inside look" at how the royals live. Part of the charm is the way the Queen personifies the iron fist in the velvet glove--she steers and pushes people while being perfectly polite and charming. Part is the way Helen Mirren personifies both the institution and the individual. While at Balmoral, the Queen refuses to trouble the groundskeepers and drives herself across the estate in a battered old Jeep, wearing Wellingtons and a scarf over her head.

What remains eternally fascinating about the royals is the way they must be both symbols and human beings. The outrage over the Palace's lack of response to Diana's death is a perfect example of how the two roles are in conflict. Think about it: if I were to die, suddenly, would I really want my ex-husband's mother--my ex-mother-in-law--to be in charge of the funeral? (In theory, of course, as I'm not divorced, and I love my mother-in-law.) So, the fact that the Queen's first reaction is to let the Spensers hold the funeral is really appropriate.

But there was a strong desire from the people to have their Queen address their loss. I found this particularly sweet, because despite the anti-monarchist feeling articulated by Cherie Blair, what England really wanted was some reassurance from their monarch--they wanted someone to tell them that things would be all right.

It is a beautiful film, and Helen Mirren is phenomenal. It's been nominated for Best Picture Oscar, but I'd not put my money on it, as it is such a quiet and carefully observed movie--not the "Great Night At The Movies" that are more typical picks for the award. But even if Helen Mirren doesn't win, she's clearly won hearts with this film and it's worth going out of your way to see it.

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