The Queen


The Queen

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip feel the love.

(2006) Drama  (Miramax) Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Sylvia Syms, Alex Jennings, Helen McCrory, Roger Allam, Tim McMullan, Douglas Reith, Robin Soans, Mark Bazeley, Earl Cameron, John McGlyn, Lola Peploe, Pat Laffan. Directed by Stephen Frears

Queen Elizabeth II of England is one of the most public figures of the last half-century, but how little we know her. For most of us, she is this cold, unemotional creature more or a figure than a real person. Few have been allowed inside the inner sanctum of her heart.

One of the most emotional weeks in recent British history was the week following the untimely death of Diana, the former Princess of Wales in 1997. Tony Blair (Sheen) had just been elected Prime Minister and had met, along with his bemused wife Cherie (McCrory),  with Queen Elizabeth (Mirren) just prior for the royal family’s departure to their summer estate at Balmoral in Scotland. It was there that they were given the awful news of the car accident in Paris and anxiously watched the BBC through the night like the rest of us until the final word was received. 

Elizabeth’s first thought was to Diana’s sons, Harry and William, who were understandably devastated. She had been trained to treat the tragedy as a private matter for the family, with dignity and public stoicism befitting the monarch of the realm, a decision supported by her husband Prince Phillip (Cromwell) and the Queen Mother (Syms). However, Blair, who was the first to publicly speak about the tragedy, was disturbed to find that there was increasing sentiment that the British people wanted – needed – to hear their monarch speak on the issue, whereas the Royal family were loathe to do so, resisting more the harder he pushed. Prince Charles (Jennings), the ex-husband of Diana, was somewhat weak but still understood what was happening politically. Nonetheless, the family stayed in Balmoral in seclusion until Blair had to demand that the Queen return to London to be with her subjects. There she would at last be forced to address the issue and allow her subjects to publically grieve with her, one of the most extraordinary turn of events in recent British history. 

There are some terrific performances here, particularly Mirren who once again turns in an Oscar-caliber performance as Elizabeth. She’s been nominated twice for a Supporting Actress (in 1995 and again in 2002) but this would be the movie that finally got her the statuette. She portrays Elizabeth as a stoic, highly private person who is slow to realize that the world has changed and her role as monarch needed to change with it. She captures the queen’s mannerisms nicely, and breathes life into a personage that is somewhat two-dimensional, at least here in America. In the end, she adapts to her new role with admirable graciousness which seems to be in character with the woman Mirren was portraying. 

Cromwell does a terrific job as Phillip, playing him as a cantankerous and stuffy aristocrat whose belief in the rightness of his cause blinds him to the damage he is doing to his own position. In many ways his portrayal is exactly the way most Americans see the aristocracy of Europe as somewhat prissy, arrogant and bone-headed, refusing to enter the 21st century even as time has passed their sort by. Whether or not this is accurate is subject to debate; however, many Americans share this view which has been reinforced often in films and television.

Sheen is sympathetic as Blair, who is at first in awe of the Royals, then grows frustrated by them and at last comes to admire them. Blair – who would have his own fall from grace later in his career – was then the fair-haired boy of British politics (the Hugh Grant character in Love Actually was modeled on him somewhat) and his actions during the crisis of Diana’s death cemented him in the hearts of the British people for years. Sheen captures Blair’s political savvy and his somewhat awkward self-consciousness in the presence of the Royals. Much of the movie is seen through his eyes, and quite frankly it’s an effective way of acting as an audience surrogate.

Frears gives us what feels like a real glimpse into the royal household, albeit one that is largely conjecture. For example, there is a sequence involving Elizabeth’s encounter with a magnificent buck in the countryside at Balmoral which follows her most emotional scene of the movie. It is lit in almost a heavenly manner, and one gets the feeling that there is more to it than meets the eye. Obviously, there’s no way of knowing if anything of the sort ever happened, and if it did, well, the Queen isn’t talking. Then again, perhaps this movie is talking for her. Mirren’s performance elevates it from what could have been movie-of-the-week territory to something more splendid.

WHY RENT THIS: A rare glimpse into the Royal household, even if much of it is conjecture. An Oscar-winning career-defining performance by Mirren, as well as solid performances by Cromwell and Sheen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit on the slow side, pacing-wise.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of strong language and a disturbing image of a dead buck.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Mirren had so inhabited the role of the Queen that by the end of the shoot, slouching crew members would often stand at attention and hold their hands respectfully behind their backs when addressing Mirren.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: While commentary tracks are standard with nearly every DVD and Blu-Ray these days, there is one here by monarchy expert and British historian Robert Lacey that provides a great deal of illumination not only to the traditions of the royal family but also to what happened during tht week in particular.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $123.4M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Source Code

Of Time and the City


Of Time and the City

A bleak vista in postwar Liverpool.

(Strand) Terence Davies, the Beatles, Assorted local figures in Liverpool. Directed by Terence Davies

We are all products of our environment. We feel a sense of keen belonging to a place and time; it is there we feel comforted and where we feel we understand our surroundings at least to the degree that hindsight gives us.

Unfortunately, no place is static; every city changes. Old buildings crumble and new ones take their place, glittering in the architecture du jour of the era. We find ourselves lost in our own homes, unable to make sense at what had once seemed sensible.

Veteran director, writer and actor Terence Davies spent a quarter of a century in the British working class city of Liverpool, starting just after the Second World War. His was a world of compression; row after row of houses sharing common walls, made of brick, smoke curling from chimneys to join that which belched out of the factories and the shipyards.

Like most in Liverpool, Davies grew up in a working class family, the youngest of ten children (two of which died in infancy) in a deeply religious Roman Catholic household. He found the strictures of the Church too confining and eventually rejected Catholicism, becoming an atheist instead.

His budding homosexuality caused him great suffering, trying to reconcile his feelings with societal mores and eventually deciding that the problem was with society and not him, quite sensibly in fact. He considers himself a realist; he prefers to see things as they are rather than what they could be.

This is what puzzles me about the documentary he has made about his home town. He simultaneously labels it a love letter and a eulogy and indeed, it’s both, but it seems fairly certain that Davies prefers the Liverpool of his youth to the modern one. Using archival footage (some of it seems to be home movies; whether they were shot by Davies or other Liverpudlians is not clear), Davies weaves a sense of time and place that has a certain amount of allure.

Davies narrates the movie himself, often quoting from such sources as T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, Shelley and Sir Walter Raleigh, among others. This is set to the background of funereal classical music and the occasional pop song (from such disparate sources as the Swinging Blue Jeans and the Hollies).

Most Americans are probably aware of Liverpool, if they are aware at all, for being the birthplace of the Beatles, but Davies gives them little thought, other than to dismissively sniff “they inspired me to love classical music.” Indeed, he has an acerbic tongue but most of his vitriol is saved for the monarchy, which he considers an outdated custom; he was especially incensed at the expenses spent on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at a time when England, still reeling from the damage from the Blitz, was stricken by intense poverty and hunger. He certainly has a point.

My problem with the movie boils down to this; if you are going to take us on a journey to see your home town as you see it, you need to give us a reason for us to go along, otherwise you’re just telling us that things change, something all of us are well aware of. I got the feeling that Davies is truly fond of Liverpool and despairs that the changes made to it are not for the better; that’s all well and good, but if I can’t love Liverpool – if you can’t adequately transfer your own love to me, then those changes aren’t going to feel as immediate to me. In other words, he might have stimulated the mind but not the heart.

In a sense, without involving the viewer in your emotional point of view, you’re making what amounts to cinematic masturbation. While I was able to at least find some of it – enough to make it worth my while – intriguing, for the most part this is ponderous and pretentious, a collection of images that while compelling, ultimately become meaningless without an emotional center to anchor to.

WHY RENT THIS: This is certainly a love letter to Liverpool.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit pretentious and overbearing at times, the film doesn’t give viewers a reason to love Liverpool themselves.

FAMILY VALUES: There isn’t anything here that isn’t suitable for all audiences, although I would think most children might find this boring.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film Davies has directed since 2000’s The House of Mirth and it is also his first documentary.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Stepfather