Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Queen - Movie Review

The Queen 2006

As the cries for “God Save Dame Helen Mirren” begin to waft across the shores, we have to join in the chorus. Not that we are new fans. We first took notice of the fearless young actress when she appeared in the famed Peter Hall production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that seemed to epitomize the best of the late 1960s theatre. It didn’t hurt that she got to play along with such talented folks as Diana Rigg and David Warner. For the past four decades she has managed to slide under the radar of most filmgoers with her perfectly detailed, often powerful, and sometimes just plain brilliant portrayals which have garnered her numerous accolades including two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress.

The first was for her sharp portrayal of the fertile and bedeviled Queen Charlotte in “The Madness of King George”, who attempted to deal with her husband King George III’s mental deterioration while juggling her position as Queen and mother to fifteen children. Her second nomination was for her exquisitely etched den mother to all the downstairs help in Robert Altman’s majestic mystery play “Gosford Park”.

And now, it looks like Dame Mirren has a lock on the Best Actress category for her finely detailed, controlled, surprisingly emotional and endlessly watchable performance as her majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. One of our favorite directors, Stephen Frears continues to demonstrate his love affair with movies and apparently with British actresses of “un certain age”, who he single handedly seems to be rescuing from cinematic oblivion. Last year, he delivered Dame Judi Dench her fifth Oscar nomination for her wonderful work in “Mrs. Henderson Presents”. This time he sets his lens amidst the backstage shenanigans that captivated the world upon the death of a certain blonde lady who came to symbolize the Cinderella legacy in reverse.

When the Honourable Diana Frances Spencer entered the world stage as the timid and lovely young bride of the infamously uptight and philandering heir presumptive to the British monarchy, she seemed to be living every little girls fantasy. Nabbing a rich man who would be too consumed with his own affairs, stately and carnally to give two shits about her own daily existence. For some gals, this would be a boon. Imagine, being able to shop all day long and be expected to lay down and close her eyes and think of England only twice once she had produced the heir and the spare.

Having done her duty, we figured that the monarchy was saved yet again, and she could keep herself busy with her celebrity friendships and designer togs. Little did we know that the Princess Diana was a fool for love. She wanted a real marriage. Now anybody with even a passing knowledge of the Royal Houses of Europe knows that love and marriage are two distinct worlds to those nutty inbreeders. So, years later, now a glamorous divorcee with a real penchant to communicate with the people and a desire to do good, she turned into quite the international ambassador for several noble causes.

All this would end on August 31, 1997 in a speeding Mercedes in our beloved Paris.

While the conspiracy theorists continue to argue the details of the accident that took her life, what transpired in the weeks following her untimely demise was a tabloid wet dream. The rigidity and formality of the centuries old house of Windsor came crumbling down around their enlarged ears when the public cried out for a display of mourning and respect for the fallen former HRH. Her majesty, the Queen denied the public their wishes. Barricading her family in their famed country retreat, Barmoral Castle, she managed to appear more aloof and indifferent than ever before.

The newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair milked the cameras and the hearts and minds of the world at large with his seemingly heartfelt tribute to Diana. And still the royals would not appear. The political machinations, the entreaties, the twisting of bejeweled arms behind damask curtains held the world glued to the drama occurring behind castle walls. Ultimately, the public’s outcry would prevail and the Queen, her majesty did a remarkable thing.

She acquiesced. She flew the flag above Buckingham Palace at half mast, (a breach of Royal etiquette for a banished member of their household), she led a return to London and made a very public display alongside her cryptkeeper husband, Prince Phillip and her mourning grandchildren, the heirs to Diana’s legacy amongst the throngs of well wishers mobbing the gates of the palace.

She made a very stilted, but perfectly orchestrated public address via satellite thanking the world for their massive display of grief and condolences throughout the days following Diana’s death. Everyone seemed to breath a sigh of relief and the public got its state funeral with all the trimmings.

The only problem was, that in giving in to the public wishes and her Prime Minister’s entreaties, her Majesty had humbled herself in a manner that no British Monarch had since the days of King John.

Stephen Frears delivers a captivating film that manages to recreate the extraordinary drama that occurred without once resorting to tabloid fodder or over the top hysterics. But then again, he has always been a master of the slow burn and the richly layered storytelling. His best work: “My Beautiful Laundrette”, “Prick Up Your Ears”, “Dangerous Liaisons”, “The Grifters”, “The Snapper”, “High Fidelity” and “Dirty Pretty Things” are wonderful films that take the time to earn their emotional highlights. “The Queen” is no exception.

By focusing on the smaller moments that threatened to up heave a millennium old system of order, the film builds real dramatic tension from the contrasting ruling styles of Queen Elizabeth II and her Prime Minister Tony Blair. And with such wonderful actors as Helen Mirren and Michael Blair in the roles, the sparks are low key, but powerful nonetheless.

In the supporting roles, James Cromwell is particularly fine as the famously unpopular Prince Consort. His rigidity and bilious dislike for the legacy of Diana might secretly be shared by the Queen, but they certainly do not help in maintaining a sense of family at home.

Sylvia Sims manages to steal the few scenes she is in as the Queen Mother. This onetime sexpot . . . seriously, check her out above . . . is having a rollicking good time as the aged matriarch who subtly attempts to cool the frayed nerves and maintain decorum.

As Prince Charles, Alex Jennings is saddled with the most thankless role. For as in life, Charles isn’t very interesting at all. Especially in the context of the surrounding cast. He certainly isn’t bad, just not as robust a character or accomplished performer as the two leads.

The joy of watching solid filmmaking is a rare treasure nowadays. Best exemplified in one of the final scenes after the battle royale has subsided, the Prime Minister returns to Buckingham Palace to meet with the Queen. As he attempts to make small talk, the Queen gazes coolly upon him. The multitude of emotions that barely flicker across Dame Helen Mirren’s face as she attempts to maintain her composure is a moment of such great acting on display that it left us breathless. It is a purely cinematic moment that deserves mention, for being handled so beautifully.

Dame Helen deserves any award that might come her way this year, and pound for sterling pound, Michael Sheen is to be applauded for not only maintaining his foothold in their scenes together but helping to make them shine.

The Queen” is a wonderful film. One of the best of the year. Go now, and see it! We decree it. Bless you all!

Directed by Stephen Frears
Written by Peter Morgan

Helen Mirren as HM Queen Elizabeth II
Michael Sheen as Tony Blair
James Cromwell as Prince Philip
Alex Jennings as Prince Charles
Sylvia Syms as HM The Queen Mother
Roger Allam as Robin Janvrin
Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair
Mark Bazeley as Alastair Campbell

Cinematography by Affonso Beato
Film Editing by Lucia Zucchetti
Original Music by Alexandre Desplat
Production Design by Alan MacDonald
Art Direction by Matthew Broderick
Set Decoration by Tina Jones
Costume Design by Consolata Boyle


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