Monday, October 16, 2006

FILM: The Queen

Having just seen Her Royal Highness in person last month, we found Dame Helen Mirren's performance as The Queen to be especially phenomenal. On the heels of an acclaimed portrayal of Elizabeth I, Mirren has now veritably transformed into the virgin queen's namesake ERII. The film spins an intriguing behind-the-scenes tale of the clash of traditional British "stiff upper lip" values with the modern response to the death of Princess Diana, as newly elected PM Tony Blair delicately coaxes the out-of-touch monarch into a necessary break with tradition. While the film certainly has its bias (it's impossible to resist the tidal wave of emotion following Diana), what gives it its interest and its complexity is where it gives glimpses of insight into the Queen's point of view, and shows her some sympathy. We get to see a Queen whose instincts and breeding have served her well for decades get slapped by the realization that she no longer knows her subjects as well as she thought. And we get to see a thoughtful illustration of a woman whose whole life has been incredible luxury but also unrelenting duty dictated by tradition. Michael Sheen was also superb as the young Tony Blair, a bit flustered by his first meetings with HRH, but gingerly urging her to what he knew to be the right course. Blair comes off smelling like a rose, with his adept political instincts tempered by an idealism brought into focus by contrast with his antimonarchist wife and his cynical staff. That alchemy makes him a brilliant bridge between tradition and modernity, embracing the latter while respecting the former. Prince Charles comes off sympathetically, with a heart if not a spine, while Prince Philip gets no sympathy, coming off as a cantankerous and short-sighted old codger. The characters of the Queen Mother and Cherie Blair both added interesting dimension to the story. The splicing in of actual footage from the public events was used to good effect to make the story feel more real. And the inside glimpses of royal family life, along with the breathtaking scenery on the Balmoral estate worked to underscore the isolation of the royals. (Having just been in Royal Deeside, we especially appreciated the scenery of that breathtaking countryside, and we also recognized a number of the sites - like Castle Fraser, which in real life is not exactly adjacent to Balmoral.) This engaging drama was a surprisingly welcome respite to the "October doldrums", typically a seasonal dearth of any good films.

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