Monday, December 18, 2006

We are not amused: The Queen

The Queen, the second in director Stephen Frears' proposed trilogy of films about British prime minister Tony Blair (the first was about Blair's rise to power, the third would be about he and George W. Bush deciding to go to war in Iraq), has an inherently stuffy and stagey feel to it, rather befitting a film about one of the more set-in-her-ways people on Earth. Unfortunately, this quality occasionally robs the film of a more cinematic quality, making it play like a filmed version of a stage production (indeed, it's easy to conceive of a Broadway adaptation of this making the rounds at the Tonys a few years from now). What the film loses in cinematic urgency, though, it makes up for with wonderful performances.

In The Queen, Blair (Michael Sheen, dryly witty) has just ascended to the position of Prime Minister and encountered Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren, who's actually worthy of the awards talk for once), a queen who's as suspicious of him and his Labour Party ways (it's briefly referenced that the Queen has more in common with the Tories) as he (with his anti-royalist wife) is of her. Shortly after Blair is ensconced, Princess Diana dies, and the public outcry of grief threatens to do the Queen in. The rest of the movie has to do with Blair convincing her to step outside of her shell to give the people what they need -- a queen who mourns for someone she was never particularly fond of and, indeed, has no real reason to mourn.

It must be said that a lot of this seems very odd. In our age, when terrorism and war dominate headlines, the fact that the death of a rather insignificant figure on the world scale caused this much grief feels a bit quaint (and the film takes pains to show that the mourning crossed over from the United Kingdom to other countries as well). Diana, of course, was a good person, and the causes she worked for were uniformly fine ones, but, even now, the grieving seems over-the-top. It's far easier for an American such as myself (who's naturally suspicious of royalty and the national soap opera that springs up around it anyway) to side with the slightly bemused Queen than Blair, who sees that the people need a mourner-in-chief.

What's nice about this is that there's never any attempt to play this situation as a deep drama. It quickly becomes more of a comedy of manners set among the monarchy, the sort of wry entertainment you might immediately think of when you hear the phrase "British film." It's less about the attempts by Blair and the Queen to have their way, and more about the generation gap that separates them -- he intrinsically understands how the 24-hour media has changed everything, and she has no idea. This isn't presented as the story of what really happened after Diana's death; the script is far too witty to suggest that. It's a dry comedy, drawn in bits and pieces.

Frears' camera is rarely dynamic here -- there are few shots where it actually moves or gives the actors much room to breathe (indeed, it's easy to remember the many, many stifling close-ups Frears traps his actors in). But his ability to subtly make both sides of the argument seem to make sense to the audience as well as his hand with the actors are the movie's true strengths.

Frears has always been something of an actors' director (he's wrangled great work out of a long list of performers from Jack Black to Chiwetel Ejeiofor to Anjelica Huston), and his cast here comes ready to play. The film is, in essence, about two protagonists learning to capitulate to each other politically. While that doesn't sound horribly interesting on paper, Mirren and Sheen make it the stuff of riveting drama (especially Mirren, who manages to sell even the film's more bizarre moments, which involve the Queen mourning a dead stag), slowly circling each other and coming to respect an individual they wouldn't be naturally inclined to respect in the first place.

But Frears manages to strike just the right notes with his other performers. James Cromwell is hilarious as the doddering Prince Phillip, while Sylvia Syms manages to put a new spin on the overly-controlling old biddy as the Queen Mother. Helen McCrory, as Blair's wife, Cherie, is probably the strongest impediment to Blair and the Queen seeing eye-to-eye, but it's to the credit of Frears and scripter Peter Morgan that her concerns are treated just as fairly as everyone else's.

From both a political and a strictly American standpoint, The Queen is a bit hard to wrap one's mind around. It ends up being something of a love note to the royals, and while the royals are entertaining as soap opera, it's hard to take monarchy seriously in the 21st century, when it has essentially been superceded by democracy in the West (again, especially for an American, what with our complete lack of a royal system and our general cynicism toward our leaders since Watergate). There's an argument to be made (I won't make it, but I have friends I can point you in the direction of who will) that the monarchy prevents true social change from sweeping across the countries where it has a toehold.

But Frears, Morgan and this cast never force questions of politics down your throat. Their greatest achievement here is in never condescending to any of their characters. All of these people have very reasonable goals and motivations, and it's hard to come away from the film without feeling sympathy for all of them. The Queen isn't a perfect film or even a stunning example of cutting-edge filmmaking (as the amount of praise lavished upon it might lead you to suspect). What it is is a closely observed portrait of a moment in time that already feels so long ago, a film that has the decency to treat its larger-than-life subjects as both human beings and adults.

(Note: There will be TV stuff over the next few weeks, but the holiday hiatus most of the networks are laboring under will mean that more film reviews will go up as I catch up with the stuff I've missed.)

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