Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Queen / **** (PG-13)

HM Queen Elizabeth II: Helen Mirren
Tony Blair: Michael Sheen
Prince Philip: James Cromwell
HM The Queen Mother: Silvia Syms
Prince Charles: Alex Jennings
Robin Janvrin: Roger Allam
Cherie Blair: Helen McCrory

Miramax and Pathe Pictures present a film directed by Stephen Frears. Written by Peter Morgan. Running time: 97 min. Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language).

Watching Stephen Frears’s Oscar nominated film “The Queen”, I couldn’t get two recent events out of my head. The first was the death of President Gerald Ford and the period of morning this country endured for him a few weeks back. Ford was never one of our more respected leaders. Indeed, right around the time of his death I coincidentally started revisiting on DVD the first season of “Saturday Night Live”, where Chevy Chase became famous ridiculing Ford’s dexterity and intelligence.

I was actually upset on the Monday after Ford’s death. While the rest of our country went back to work after the New Year holidays, all government agencies got another day off to memorialize our fallen President; meanwhile, I was waiting for Netflix to send me a few more episodes of “Alias”. Worse yet, I’d already had Mizzou’s bowl game interrupted Friday afternoon by Katie Curic’s decision regarding the newsworthiness of watching an empty parking lot for the arrival of the Ford family prior to the first of countless services.

This is pretty representative of how many Americans live such invested lives that taking time to respect tradition is a secondary function. Or maybe I’m just a jerk. These feelings are intensified because I actually had a personal experience with Ford. Once at an open-air symphonic concert in Vail, Colorado, I sat only about thirty yards away from the former President. Sure, the Secret Service was positioned in seats between us, but it was not a crowded audience and I was able to exchanges glances and nods with the man who once was the most powerful subject of ridicule in the free world. So I was saddened by his death. I had lost something personal and should have felt more forgiving of tradition.

But the powers of personal emotion and political tradition have always been at odds. Americans have had it a bit easier than the British in getting over such differences, and the popular phenomena that was Princess Diana was maybe the British Monarchy’s greatest test in dealing with this clash. When newly elected Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair declared Princess Di “the people’s princess” in the days following her tragic death, he was only articulating what the people of England knew from the day she entered public life and what the Royal Family never seemed to understand

Although the catalyst for the subject of this film is Princess Diana’s death, this film is not about the event itself, but the people affected by it. It is about the unbending tradition of the Royal Family. It is about the separation between the no longer governing British Royalty and the people it still calls its subjects. It is about modernist (or progressive) ideas versus the bygone ideals of conservative tradition. But it is also about how people are human no matter what title they hold, no matter how strong their belief in their divine righteousness.

Prime Minister Blair, as portrayed by Michael Sheen (“Kingdom of Heaven”), is not strictly a politician here, but is an intelligent political businessman and an eager commoner who wants to make good on his promises to affect change for the good of England. He is awkward in his new post. Notice the football jersey he wears as he places his first call to The Queen to discuss the Princess Diana situation. It is easy to see why the populace would have elected him in a landslide and slightly harder to see the world politician he has become.

Queen Elizabeth gives him a warning of what he will become in the film’s final scene, however, suggesting that he will one day be thrown to the same media wolves that she was in the week following Di’s death. She speculates the reason Blair was so willing to back her, when even members of his own office were ready to crucify her, is because he knew that one day he will fall out of favor. I only hope, for her own personal victory, that this conversation was a reality and not pure conjecture on screenwriter Peter Morgan’s part. Of course, the real life Blair has now chosen not to run for re-election, an option that doesn’t exist for the Royals.

The Queen’s own character is perfectly spelled out in the opening scene composed by Frears (“Mrs. Henderson Presents”) and writer Peter Morgan (“The Last King of Scotland”), and deftly portrayed by Oscar shoe-in Helen Mirren (“Gosford Park”). The complexity of The Queen’s character is revealed when she asks her portrait artist if he voted in the election for the new Labour Prime Minister. As she poses stiff and unsmiling for her portrait she declares how much she envies this artist -- her “subject” -- for his freedom of choice, his ability to take his own action in developing the future of his country… and hers.

The Queen Mother, marvelously portrayed by Silvia Syms (“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”), represents Blair’s opposite, the Monarchy from an age when it had the power it now merely pretends to represent. But no member of the Royal Family is without their humanity. They use their own flawed reasoning to justify their actions of unbending tradition that keep them willfully separated from the people. Despite his buffoonish treatment in the press, Prince Charles (Alex Jennings, “Babel”) is the most sympathetic family member. Although he does retain a touch of that perceived public persona, he is the only one who seems to realize the difference between public perception and personal reality. Only Blair’s wife Cherie can wholly complain about her characterization here, as Helen McCrory (“Casanova”) is given little to work with beyond a progressive automaton.

Even Prince Philip (James Cromwell, “I, Robot”), with his bullish behavior, is trying to protect his grandsons from having to deal with the loss of their mother. He takes the boys out on a hunting mission for a stag that has been wandering through the Royals’ country estate. The stag symbolizes the old ways of the Monarchy. While the Royals are hunting the poor, majestic animal and stalling any reaction to Diana’s death, they are only shooting themselves. In the end the animal wanders onto a neighboring estate and is killed by an investment banker from London; the Royals aren’t even in control of their own fate.

I admire how this film looks with such complexity at what may at first seem to be an obvious issue. It is not merely a modern biographical costume drama but a multifaceted character study of people who are too often defined by their positions and their public personas. It may seem in the end that the only thing Queen Elizabeth is master over is the pack of Corgis that follow her everywhere, but this is what brings me back to the second recent event I had mentioned earlier. When Queen Elizabeth celebrated her eightieth birthday just last year, the list of performers read like a who’s who of British rock stars. When The Queen of England invites Ozzy Osbourne to perform at her birthday party, it is hard to accuse her of not being modern. This suggests that the Queen does not share the dead stag’s fate in this film; instead, in the end, her fate is her own.

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