Monday, October 30, 2006

MovieWatch: "The Queen"

"The Queen"
Director: Stephen Frears
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 69 (Same as "Marie Antoinette" for whatever reason)
In a Nutshell: I didn't dislike Stephen Frears' "The Queen," but I need somebody to explain to me why it was made. Or, to be more specific, I need an explanation for why, nine years after Princess Diana's death, this was the time to explore the royal family's reaction to the tragedy and why, in turn, that reaction had to be a feature film, rather than a BBC or HBO telefilm. Or maybe I just need an explanation of why *this* was the movie to be made on the subject. A perfectly interesting fly-on-the-wall piece full of interesting details, unexpected humor and fine performances, "The Queen" lacks a narrative imperative, a thematic motivation.

I like Stephen Frears, "The Queen" could have been made by any number of competent directors of the British big and small screen. Screenwriter Peter Morgan, rather than Frears, drives this talky film, which spends much time explaining the protocol of British Royalty and government, exposition which is much more for the audience than for the characters on screen, which caused the former writing student in me to scream, "Show me, don't tell me!"

And, in the process, the movie bends over backwards to offend nobody. The Queen is out of touch with reality, but she's a noble woman who has spent too long in too difficult a position, a position made more difficult by the need to show love for a woman who dedicated her life to undermining her. Tony Blair is a modern man and a progressive thinker, but he holds traditional values and cares too much, perhaps, for many of the establishment institutions he swore to tear down. If "The Queen" wanted to be political, it could have made more hay from Blair's decline from leftist innovator into a man who may not best be known as George W. Bush's willing lap-dog. Instead, the movie is anonymous.

Oscar prognosticators -- folks like Jeffrey Wells, David Poland and, at the very nadir, Tom O'Neil -- love deciding the Academy races early and Mirren has already been given the Oscar for the year. Bravo. And she's great here, playing a far more muted, internalized performance than you typically see drawing this kind of awards attention. The performance is all in subtle intonation and mannerisms and how she, as the God-saved Queen, carries herself. But I suspect that Mirren is going to win an Oscar this year because she's Helen Mirren and she doesn't have an Oscar and not because this is somehow the finest performance of her career. A reasonable and possibly correct argument could be made that in the calendar year, this is Mirren's third best filmed performance, following her Emmy-winning work as a different Elizabeth in HBO's eponymous film and the latest incarnation of her "Prime Suspect" franchise. You don't see that very often.

I'd like to see more buzz, incidentally, for Michael Sheen's performance as Blair, as he manages to look both foppish and pragmatic in a very interesting way.


  1. Anonymous10:06 AM

    Why now? The answer may be buried in that final exchange between the Queen and Blair, when she warns him that the political winds may shift in the wrong direction in the years ahead. Perhaps that one line is not reason enough to make the whole movie, but the film suggests the Princess Di affair to be a key turning point in the history of British national identity, one that obviously required some adjustment from the royals. While I'd agree that the film isn't much more cinematic than an HBO docudrama, I found it completely riveting and remain thankful it was made, whatever its contemporary relevance.

  2. Hey Scott...

    You're absolutely right that that's the line that's supposed to answer my question and that ties it in with Blair's own popular decline. But I didn't feel like that was what the movie was about before that point and I'm skeptical if a single line of dialogue can cause a movie to thematically reverse or adjust course that late in the game. That also goes with my problem that the screenplay was steering the movie and that Frears was just along for the ride. That's not a bad thing, just an observation amidst Oscar buzz for Frears.

    I spent six months in London in the immediate aftermath of Diana's death and I had no sense that the national identity was changing. Then again, I was a gringo who read The Guardian, so I know that I'm not a reliable observer on such matters.

    When it comes to revisionist analysis of royalty, I'd take Mrs. Brown over The Queen any day, I think...



  3. Anonymous11:54 AM

    We're not that far apart, Daniel, though I probably liked the movie just a hair more than you did. I'll agree with you that Frears turns the movie over to an excellent script and two fine lead performances, but then, Frears has never been a terribly showy filmmaker. You can nearly always count on him to do exactly what he's done with The Queen-- stage the film with understatement, intelligence, and quiet attention to detail, get great performances from his actors, and make the most out of solid material. And while that won't get an auteurist's blood pumping, I'll certainly take it.

  4. Excellent Review Dan. I might end up liking this a lot more than you if I ever see it since I really did enjoy Marie-Antoinette.

    By the way, do you plan to review Bobby? I don't want to see it. It looks so fucking idealistic and heavy-handed like Paul Haggis' Crash sans a talented cast.

  5. I suspect I'll end up seeing Bobby at some point, but I'm finding that TV is occupying even more time that I'd have casually guessed, which leaves me with less movie time which means that Emilio Estevez's political Love Boat movie may get lost in the shuffle for a few weeks.

    The only thing I've seen in theaters lately is Little Children, which I still having trouble working with. I don't *think* it's wearing well in my mind, but it's tough to know, day-by-day. My brain, you see, is in total flux...


  6. Anonymous9:13 AM

    I think the most significant question regarding "The Queen" may not be WHY it was made but, why it was made into a film rather than a TV movie.

    My understanding of "The Queen" is that it is apparently the 2nd installment of a 3-movie trilogy chronicling the rise and fall of Tony Blair (all 3 movies directed by Frears and starring Michael Sheen as Blair). The first installment "The Deal", depicting Blair's political ascension, was a TV movie which previously aired on British television. The 2nd installment, "The Queen", of course, portrays Blair rising to his apex of power and popularity in the wake of Princess Di's tragic death. The 3rd installment, which will depict Blair's decline due to the Iraqi war, will be released as a TV movie in the near future.

    Apparently, "The Queen" was originally planned as a TV movie (like the other 2 installments) but, was released as a feature film instead. This is pure speculation on my part, of course, but, I suspect that "The Queen" was released as a film to help garner a possible (and much-deserved) Oscar nod for Helen Mirren.

    However, any film which allows the extraordinary Dame Helen to display her formidable thespian genius to moviegoers has justified its existence on that point alone.