Actor Spotlight: The Queen
It’s always seemed to me that most high-profile, biographical/historical movies are more concerned with recreating the people and events than they are with actually making an interesting movie, relying perhaps on the cache and fascination of the real-life events to let the filmmakers off that particular hook. And fittingly, most discussion surrounding said movies seems concerned only with the actual events and people involved, with any talk of the movie itself confined almost exclusively to how close the script is to what really happened, how close the actors’ makeup and mannerisms resemble their real-life counterparts, and how well the production design recreates the actual setting and era depicted.
Needless to say, it’s not my favorite genre of movie.
And don’t even get me started on the royal family. Let me spare you an hour of ranting by saying that, to put it kindly, I just don’t “get” it. I don’t know that my being an American has anything to do with it, as I know a few equally American co-workers or friends who seem eternally fascinated by the goings-on of these people, happily spending an entire afternoon discussing William & Kate’s wedding plans while to me it’s all just so much stuff, like every new Kanye West album, that we’re always told that we should care about, but nobody has ever been able to tell me why.
So with a movie like Stephen Frears’ The Queen, with its implicit promise to make me somehow care about this story, these people, this perspective, I suppose the only real measure of success is: does it? In two words, not especially.
The Queen begins with the inauguration of Tony Blair, whose election to Prime Minister was meant to represent a new age in the life of Britain. This is immediately put to the test with the shocking death of the former Princess, now private citizen (not exactly, but certainly no longer a royal), Diana. The royal family doesn’t want to make a federal (or, I suppose, royal) case of it, wanting to just leave Diana’s family and children to grieve in peace, but public perception falls so squarely against the family for this perceived lack of care that the very idea of the monarchy is (apparently) threatened.
The whole thing feels like a stretched-out one-act play, the story of one rather simple “problem” (repeated ad nauseum for the sake of the characters and, I suppose, the audience) that could be solved with one rather simple (to you and me) act that the Queen, for whatever reason, simply refuses to perform. Is it pride? Vanity? Stubbornness? Simple cluelessness? Some combination of all these and more, and if so, to what degree and in what ratio? The movie attempts to make us understand what it is about this simple act that was so impossible for the Queen to do, and ultimately I did feel bad for her for being, in the end, basically bullied, manhandled, and emotionally blackmailed by a misinformed, celebrity-obsessed, and frankly hysterical public into doing and pretending to feel things that she was not under a single moral, legal, or spiritual obligation to do or feel; however, any sympathy she garners simply vanishes with any of the one-on-one scenes with her husband, her son, or especially the Queen Mother, the script and direction of which remind me more of a rerun of Absolutely Fabulous than anything else – people so utterly, cluelessly far removed from anything or anybody resembling real life and actual emotions that it’s easier for me to believe that these are space aliens mistakenly left behind on our planet than to believe that they’re human beings. If this is indeed one of the very points that the filmmakers are trying to make, it certainly doesn’t help in generating a shred of sympathy or empathy for these characters.
Peter Morgan’s screenplay is said to be based on countless hours of anonymous “insider” interviews, with other equally countless and anonymous “insiders” claiming that the details are all actually, factually correct. I would imagine all the behind-the-scenes machinations and frank conversation would be of great interest to fans of royal family inner-workings gossip (I had no idea the Queen even knew how to drive, let alone enjoyed off-roading), but speaking personally none of it is enough to make anyone not already interested very much care.
Helen Mirren’s appearance and performance is transformative, and deserving of the acclaim it has received, but again this speaks more to costume, makeup, mannerism and imitation than anything else. One or two scenes of actual emotion aside, Mirren really isn’t given much to do. Even in private life, even in strictest confidence, even when all alone, we are told that the Queen is always “on”, always game-faced, always performing – an interesting (if rather sad) idea, but not so if the idea is simply presented to us, and not at all discussed or explored.
The movie is beautifully photographed, there’s a really cool CGI(?) deer, and the always-reliable Michael Sheen gives a good, nuanced performance as the then newly elected Blair. The Queen, or at least the best parts of it, is more Blair’s story, more the story of how one man came to save the monarchy, than it is the story of the monarchy itself. They really ought to have kept the movie to that, and just that. Now that would have made an interesting one-act play.