Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Her Legacy


There is nothing more beautiful than a mother and her children at play.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Princess Diana, Prince William, Prince Harry Windsor, Elton John, Rihanna, Harry Herbert, Earl Charles Spencer, William van Staubenzee, Lady Carolyn Warren, Anne Beckwith-Smith, Lord Victor Adebowale, Anna Harvey, Gerald McGrath, Graham Dillamore, Professor Jerry Wright, Mark Smith, Ian Walker, Jayne Fincher, Amanda Redman (narrator).  Directed by Ashley Gething

 

She was “The People’s Princess” and she caught the imagination of the world. A singular English beauty from a patrician background but a very real sense of compassion and social justice, Diana fought for a variety of causes including homelessness in Britain, the AIDS epidemic and the proliferation of land mines in Bosnia and elsewhere. Ironically enough, she also supported a charitable organization that deals with childhood bereavement, a cause her son William continues to lend his own support to.

Aside from her position as a royal, a tireless worker for a variety of charities, the target of scandal sheets for her high-profile divorce from the Prince of Wales and at the end of the day, a victim of our society’s obsession with celebrity, she was also a mother. William and Harry knew her from that perspective; 20 years after her untimely death in a Paris tunnel, they open up for the first time about their mother in this HBO documentary.

In the best (and worst) British tradition, the princes have kept mum regarding their emotions about their mum and to a certain extent, they remain so. The film does chronicle the events of her life but much of it through the eyes of her sons, who were witness to the media circus as much as Diana tried to shield them from it (she is heard asking a paparazzi to give her children some privacy during a skiing holiday and he flat out tells her no). In that sense, there are other documentaries which give a much more detailed accounting of her public life than this one does.

What other documentaries don’t have are the reminiscences of the two sons who are 35 and 32 now (15 and 12 at the time of their mother’s death) and the rawness of her loss is still there. While they speak about their mother in glowing terms it is no more so than any son would speak about his own mother. However, there are glimpses of the pain from time to time; Harry candidly admits he really hasn’t dealt with his grief and William confesses that he misses her every day. The two boys recount the final phone call from their mother hours before her death; William is asked if he remembers what she said. “Yes,” he says tersely and leaves it at that. Their last conversation is something that is clearly still his, that belongs only to mother and son and is something he doesn’t want to share with the world. Considering that she gave so much to the public’s insatiable need to know every little detail about his mother, one can hardly blame him.

Diana would be 56 had she lived and William breezily describes his belief that she would be a “nightmare grandmother,” spoiling the two grandchildren (to date) and leaving a mess behind for her son and daughter-in-law to clean up. He almost cackles when he refers to her as “Granny Diana” and clearly he inherited his mother’s impish sense of humor.

There are also interviews with members of Diana’s inner circle including her lady-in-waiting at court, her photographer and her brother, one of the more outspoken critics of the media in the wake of her passing. Conspicuous by their absence is Prince Charles, who one might think would support his sons in this endeavor but I suppose that his late wife, who grew to be much more popular than he, is still something of a sore spot with the Prince of Wales. Queen Elizabeth, always intensely private about family matters, was never likely to participate in a venture like this.

The home movies of Diana as a child and a teen are precious but render little insight into her as a person. Much of what we are told here we could have read on her Wikipedia page and there lies my issue with the film. It’s really hard to ask William and Harry to reveal anything about their mother when so much of her private life was made public against her wishes but I kind of wish they had.

Still, the woman gave enough and should be allowed to rest in peace and her sons seem content to allow her to do so and I can respect that. For those who are under the age of 35 and may not remember the princess well, this will be a useful introduction to her. Those of us who were of an age and watched her shine in the public eye until that light was extinguished far too soon will not find anything particularly revelatory here but there is a kind of comfort to be had that she was as good a mother as we all kind of figured she’d be. Motherhood was something that the late princess seemed to be particularly suited for which is not at all a given and certainly worthy of honoring.

REASONS TO GO: The two princes open up about their mother more so than any interview with them I’ve ever seen. Some of the home video footage is truly wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie doesn’t really add much insight into Diana as a person other than most of the broad strokes we already know. It’s an interesting documentary but not essential other than to those who are unaware of Diana’s place in history.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes dealing with the loss of a parent.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: William and Harry have continued to support many of the charities that Diana was involved during her lifetime. Diana didn’t live to see her legacy of all the landmines in Bosnia finally being removed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diana – Her Story
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Lady Bird

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The Duchess


The Duchess

Burning the candle at both ends.

(2008) Historical Biography (Paramount Vantage) Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Simon McBurney, Aidan McArdle, John Shrapnel, Alistair Petrie, Patrick Godfrey, Georgia King, Richard McCabe. Directed by Saul Dibb

 

We are fascinated with the lives of the rich and famous; add royalty to the mix and we have a real hard time looking away. Look at how we reacted to the recent royal wedding, or its predecessor of Charles and Diana – we couldn’t get enough. This isn’t a new phenomenon; it has existed for a very long time, including in the 18th Century when a woman who was a direct ancestor of Princess Diana captivated England.

Georgiana Spencer (Knightley) is a vivacious young girl when she is promised in marriage by her mother (Rampling) to the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes). Georgiana at first is thrilled by the arrangement; she is to be a Duchess! However, things don’t turn out to be quite the fairy tale that she imagined.

For one thing, the Duke is as taciturn and colorless as she is colorful and lively. He could make a rock look like a positively sparkling conversationalist whereas she is witty and opinionated. He is more interested in producing an heir and doesn’t really have any feelings towards her whatsoever; she is naive and a bit starry-eyed. Their lives come into a collision course.

Dissatisfied that she is unable to provide him anything but daughters, he starts seeking other women out. She has flings with politics and politicians (including future Prime Minister Charles Grey) as well as with men and women both. She becomes an icon of fashion (much like her descendent) and a voice in politics but her antics would land her in a good deal of hot water…and cause her much grief and sorrow.

As costume dramas go this is pretty nifty. They have a tendency to be ponderous and slow, and so this one is in places, but Knightley and Fiennes elevate it beyond the average petticoat soap opera. Fiennes goes the understated route and that works very well here. Devonshire is a bit of a jerk, but he is also a product of his times. His priorities lay in preserving his lineage (which Georgiana was eventually able to help him do) and in living a fairly scandal-free life, which as not possible as long as Georgiana was politically active. Their marriage was tumultuous at best; he took up an affair with her best friend and moved her into the house.

Knightley has generally done pretty face roles generally in period dramas or action films but she shows off her potential as an actress here. She has the charisma and charm to pull off a character as complex as the Duchess but she also manages to portray her anguish, her frustration and her doubts. It is a well-rounded performance that puts lie to the reputation that Knightley can’t act – not only can she but she has the potential to be extraordinary.

The film won an Oscar for Best Costume Design which it richly deserve and frankly had to have, in order to maintain the real Georgiana’s spectacular fashion sense. It was also nominated for Art Design. In short, this is a beautiful film to look at from the authentic locations, the elaborate costumes to the scenery and the sets.

By all accounts Georgiana Spencer was an incredible woman who has largely been forgotten except by those who study the minutiae of history and by her own family. That’s largely a shame; though her life wasn’t always a happy one, she did nonetheless pave the way for women to become more of a force in politics more than 200 years later. She deserves better than to be a mere footnote in history.

WHY RENT THIS: An interesting look at a figure in history rarely remarked upon in modern times. Knightley does some of her best work ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves ponderously slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexual content and a little bit of nudity. Some of the dialogue and situations might go over the heads of the innocent.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the costumes worn by Knightley in the film were based on dresses seen in actual portraits of Georgiana as well as political cartoons depicting her from the time.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with Georgiana Spencer’s biographer who discussed letters written by the real Duchess to her mother that gave her insight into the character of the historical figure..

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie more than likely broke even at least, but probably made a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Inside Job

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