Queen of the World


God save the Queen.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, Sarah Lancashire (narrator), Prince William, Prince Harry, Robin Onslow, Sophie Wessex, Meghan Markle, Mark Flanagan, Tony Johnstone-Burt, Anthony Morrow, Claudine Jeffery, Korede Bolade, Princess Ann, Justin Trudeau, Johnathan Fraser, Jock Slater, Patricia Scotland, Euphemia Sydney-Davies, Natalia Zagorska-Thomas. Directed by Matt Hill

 

For most of us, Elizabeth II has been the Queen of England our entire lives. She has reigned more than 60 years, ascending the throne in 1952 and becoming the longest reigning British monarch in history.

This documentary was filmed during a tumultuous year in which Prince Harry wed American actress Meghan Markle who is partially of African descent, a possibility never even considered even twenty years ago. It also highlights one of the Queen’s chief causes; the Commonwealth, made up of former English colonies and territories, a strictly voluntary association. In fact the filmmakers go to great length to explain that on Markle’s wedding gown are stitched native wildflowers of every Commonwealth country. There are currently 53 member nations; when Elizabeth founded it there were only seven.

As part of the Commonweath’s mission, young people from around the Commonwealth are invited to work at Buckingham Palace; a fashion show during London fashion week is also sponsored by the Commonwealth featuring up and coming designers from Commonwealth nations. We see both programs in action, focusing on Jamaican workers in the Palace.

There are some candid interviews with members of the Royal Family including Markle as well as Prince Charles, Princess Ann (his younger sister) and Prince Harry, who advises the young interns not to panic when encountering the Queen in the hallways. We observe her interacting with the Jamaicans and she seems kind and gentle with them. It’s as close as we come to getting any insight to the Queen herself.

It is unsurprising that she never directly addresses the camera or consents to an interview; the Queen has notoriously not done interviews and kept her private life very private. It is clear however that the world is changing and while the Queen takes very seriously her role as the face of the British monarchy, she at least acknowledges tacitly that changes will need to be made if the monarchy is to remain relevant in the 21st century. She is grandmotherly (she reminds me very much of my own grandmother) and remains popular with her subjects. She is much less aloof than she once was.

While the film is a bit of a puff piece – I can’t imagine the filmmakers would have been granted the kind of access that they received had they intended to be critical in any sort of way. Still one can’t help wish that a documentary about the Queen would have had much more of the Queen in it. To the good, some of the footage “behind the scenes” is actually quite informative and entertaining.

This will definitely appeal to anglophiles and monarchists alike. Elizabeth, at 92 years of age, remains a vital public figure and while her public appearances and travels have been cut down severely in recent years (there’s a lengthy piece on the royal yacht Britannia which she used extensively in her travels from early in her reign until recently) she still remains largely the face of the British monarchy and in many ways, the face of Britain itself. I don’t know if she ever actually said “Keep calm and carry on” which launched a thousand memes, but if she didn’t she certainly should have.

The film is currently airing on HBO in the United States and ITV in the UK. It is listed in iMDB as a mini-series but to my knowledge this one hour feature is the only one scheduled to air in the United States.

REASONS TO GO: At times this is a fascinating “backstage” look at the Royal Family. The interviews tend to humanize the Royal Family quite a bit – but not so much the Queen herself.
REASONS TO STAY: The narration tends to drone on a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: This is suitable for family viewing although most children will be terribly bored.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming began shortly before the Queen made her 2016 annual Christmas address and concluded just after the 2017 address.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Crown
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Molly (2018)

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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

The King’s Speech


The King's Speech

It's not always great to be the king.

(2010) Historical Drama (Weinstein) Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, Jennifer Ehle, Derek Jacobi, Claire Bloom, Timothy Spall, Eve West, Roger Parrott, Anthony Andrews, Patrick Ryecart. Directed by Tom Hooper

Uneasy lies the head where rests the crown. So said Shakespeare, and so it is in reality. Even those close to the crown may rest uneasy.

It is 1925 at Wembley Stadium and the British Empire is at its zenith. Fully one quarter of the world’s population lives within its borders and King George V (Gambon) rules it serenely. Radio has become a fact of life, and even the monarchy must learn to adjust to it. At the closing ceremonies of the Empire Exhibition, Prince Albert (Firth), second in line to the throne, must give a speech that will be broadcast on the BBC. Unfortunately, Albert is a terrible stammerer and any sort of public speaking is the equivalent for him of undergoing the tender mercies of The Rack. Even though his sensible and supportive wife Elizabeth (Carter) is there for moral support, the speech goes horribly.

Years go by and Elizabeth and Albert try to get some sort of speech therapy, anything to cure his condition. The cures range from marbles in the mouth, Demosthenes-style to excessive smoking which is said to relax the muscles in the throat.

Nothing works. Albert’s father realizes that his younger son is a good man who would make a better king than his older brother David (Pearce) who is “carrying on” with a twice-divorced married American woman named Wallis Simpson (West). He seems a decent enough sort but he has little backbone and with Hitler making all sorts of noise in Europe, a strong King is needed.

But England is going to get something different. King George passes away, leaving David in charge, under the name of Edward VIII. However, he is unwilling to give up on Mrs. Simpson, who now has the King of England pouring her drinks for her.

Realizing that there was a more than decent chance that he may have to give more public speeches than at first was thought, Elizabeth finds an Australian named Lionel Logue (Rush), a failed actor who comes highly recommended. His methods are indeed unorthodox, as they involve getting to know his clients personally. That involves calling the Prince by his nickname Bertie, which is mortifying at first.

Soon, the prince learns little by little to trust his new elocutionist. Grudgingly, slowly, he begins to open up to the Aussie. As he does, his stammer begins to disappear, although not completely. There is some hope that he may yet be able to fulfill his public functions more gracefully.

The Edward and Mrs. Simpson scandal at last comes to a head and Edward abdicates, leaving the throne of England for the now thrice-divorced American. Now Albert is king, George VI and the monarch of the United Kingdom, a country on the brink of war, a war in which he must lead with a voice both authoritative and regal. It will be up to Lionel to provide him with that voice.

First, this is one of the best movies of the year, so let’s get that right out of the way. What makes it so good starts off with the casting. Every role has the right person in it, from Spall as the Bulldog-like Churchill to Bloom as the dowager Queen Mary. Everyone assumes their role perfectly, not performing so much as they are inhabiting.

Before I get to the top-billed players, I wanted to mention a few other performances. Derek Jacobi does a fine job (as always) as the Archbishop of Canterbury, playing him as both manipulative and somewhat stymied by the stammering King whom he underestimates. Jennifer Ehle, as Logue’s long-suffering wife, has some excellent scenes with Helena Bonham Carter; it turns out that she is a fine comic actress as well as a dramatic one, even if her fansite chided me for not listing her in the fall preview. I stand corrected, my friends.

Helena Bonham Carter has been getting some notice for her portrayal of Bellatrix LeStrange in the Harry Potter movies, a deliciously evil role that Carter has sunk her teeth into; however, here she plays a much less flamboyant role and carries it off very nicely. It’s not acting that gets noticed as much as it perhaps should be, but it adds a certain flavor to the overall dish. Guy Pearce is one of those actors who seems incapable of a bad performance, and when he’s in a good movie given a well-defined role, he gives performances that are as good as anyone, and better than most. He may well join Rush in a Best Supporting Actor nomination in February.

The relationship between Bertie and Lionel is the heart of the movie and Hooper did well to cast two of the best actors working in them in Firth and Rush. Rather than vying for their screen time, they complement each other nicely and this works best for the movie overall.

Each performance is different and special. Firth imbues the King with courage and dignity, something that we common folk don’t usually regard the royal class as having. He becomes instantly relatable, overcoming his own personal difficulty and in doing so, becoming greater than the sum of his parts. Firth’s performance captures the frustration the man felt over his impediment, the fear he felt at taking on an enormous responsibility, one that was never intended for him and the genuine caring he felt for his subjects and his family. His interaction with his daughters Elizabeth and Margaret, the former being the present Queen of England, is part of the movie’s basic charm.

This is a movie in which class distinctions become blurred as the King learns to trust his subject and the commoner learns that the King is just a man. They find common ground and become friends, a friendship which apparently lasted for the rest of their lives. Some have criticized it for being too much of a feel-good movie, but what’s wrong with feeling good, especially in these times?  

At the end of the day, we all must find our voice in one fashion or another and watching King George VI find his is fascinating viewing. The marvelous performances of Firth, Rush, Pearce and Carter are certain to be accorded Oscar consideration, as Hooper, writer David Seidler and the motion picture itself will be as well. For my personal awards show, The King’s Speech is hands down this year’s Best Picture and Firth it’s Best Actor. They can thank the Academy of Me later.

REASONS TO GO: One of the best movies of the year. Colin Firth gives another Oscar-worthy performance while nearly his entire supporting cast does the same.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who aren’t big on British period dramas should probably give this a wide berth.

FAMILY VALUES: The King utters a few naughty words. There is also a good deal of smoking which apparently relaxes the diaphragm.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The studio appealed its “R” rating which was given it due to the repeated use of the f bomb which the studio contended was used for speech therapy purposes; unfortunately, the MPAA turned down the appeal.

HOME OR THEATER: Although this is essentially set in enclosed places for the most part, I do recommend seeing this as one of the best movies of the year, although it will probably work just as well at home.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Astro Boy