Wednesday, January 17, 2007

God Save the Queen

In an early signal of intent for the Oscars, Helen Mirren made off with best actress at LA's Golden Globe awards overnight. Mirren won the award for her starring role as Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears' "The Queen". The film tells the story of the days following Diana’s death in 1997 and the Queen’s awkward relationship with the newly elected Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. Accepting the award Mirren said Elizabeth Windsor at the age of 25 walked into the role of a lifetime. "I honestly feel this award belongs to her, because I think you fell in love with her, not with me," Mirren said.

Whether you fell in love with her or not, “The Queen” is an excellent treatise on three forms of power. These are the unwritten constitutional power of the monarchy, the executive powers of the Prime Minister and the social and commercial power of the Fourth Estate; the media that set the agenda during the tumultuous week after Diana died. The Queen badly misread public opinion, the flames were fanned by the attack dogs of the media and the media-savvy Blair came to the royal rescue, saving the Windsors from themselves and gaining giddy new heights of popularity for himself.

The narrative starts three months earlier on the day Blair is elected to end 18 years of Tory rule. On his way to Buckingham Palace to accept his appointment he is coached by royal flunkeys on the correct way to address Her Majesty: “It is ma’am as in ham, not marm as in farm”. Meanwhile the Queen bemoans to her artist she not allowed to vote and enjoy the thrill of “being partial”. The Queen has the upper hand at the first meeting. She tells Blair that he is her tenth Prime Minister and the first of those, Winston Churchill, coached her well in the ways of life.

Both the Queen and Blair are woken up in the early hours of Sunday 30 August 1997 to hear the news Diana was in a car crash in Paris. The royals and the Blairs are glued to the 24 hour news stations to watch the consequences just like all their subjects. When the news comes through that Diana is dead, Blair is quickest to read the public mood. His media chief and spin doctor Alastair Campbell coined the phrase “people’s princess” for Blair’s first speech on the morning of Diana’s death. That sound byte and Blair’s interview are repeated ad nauseum on media outlets for the next few days.

Meanwhile the Windsors are holed up in their summer retreat at Balmoral Castle stalking deer. Remote from the goings-on in London, the Queen has no desire to make a public statement, return to Buckingham Palace or show any public sign of grief. Diana is no longer a member of the Royal Family and therefore there is no reason to change plans one iota. While the crowds gathered on the Mall in an astonishing outcry of public grief for an ex-Royal, the sitcom Royal/Royle family gather around a TV set watching the coverage with disbelieving eyes and expressions of ingratitude. When a commoner grumbles about the lack of a half-mast flag on the empty palace, Prince Phillip is exasperated about the media and public’s lack of knowledge of royal protocol. When Blair rings the Queen to complain about her inaction she tells him how her family prefers to grieve quietly and with dignity. "That’s how we do things in this country, and that’s what the rest of the world admires us for," Mirren's Queen says.

But even if that were true, the Queen could not grieve quietly. The royal family became caught up in the politics of global mourning. Australian academic Rosanne Kennedy perceptively noted that Diana, unlike Charles, had a remarkable ability to re-invent her image, and in that regard, was a very modern figure. According to Kennedy, Diana’s 16 years in the media spotlight saw her represented as “a naive nineteen-year-old kindergarten teacher, a fairytale princess, to a depressed, bulimic wife and mother, to an angry divorcee, to a confessional talk show interviewee, to a glamorous cover-girl with a humanitarian message and a political mission”. Diana’s use of the confessional genre enabled ordinary people to feel that they knew her and could identify with her. But it put her starkly at odds with the preferred Royal approach of “quietness and dignity”.

Eventually the pressure is overwhelming and the Windsors agree to London and a public funeral. Prince Philip rages against the decision and the fact the funeral will be full of “homosexuals and celebrities”. But they had to bow to the power of the media and public pressure. The Queen had to grin (or smile politely) and bear it as Diana’s funeral was a global event watched by billions.

The film concludes with a postscript several weeks later. Recalling the first scene, Blair goes to the Palace to visit the Queen. The dynamic of their relationship has changed drastically as a result of Diana’s death. Though the relationship remains frosty, there is a new mutual respect between sovereign and executive leader that emerges in their curious circular conversation. The Queen has a prophetic message for Blair that he too might some day become a media figure of hate. The parallels between Diana and the current fuss over Prince William's girlfriend Kate Middleton are also striking. But although the ghost of Diana haunts the film, "The Queen" remains Helen Mirren’s film. Hers is a superlative performance inking out the depths of an unfathomable enigma. Throughout the whole ordeal, her Elizabeth remains a cool, stoic figure capable of evoking sympathy from even the most ardent republican for her dedication to what she saw as her oath of duty.

Mirren fully deserves the Golden Globe for her performance. Shawn Levy of the Oregonian has perhaps the most perceptive commentary on her performance: “Through her diplomatic tussles with Blair, her rustic Highlands romps, her firm dealings with her frustrated son and opinionated husband, her quiet colloquies with her shrewd mother, and her gradual recognition that her stolid response to Diana's death has pained her subjects, Mirren plays an otherworldly woman in a fashion that's palpably real and human.”

The remarkably adaptable veteran director Stephen Frears throws in some cinematic flourishes along the way. Frears contrasts the grand pomp of the Queen’s scenes by filming them in 35mm against the informality and fish finger dinner scenes of the Blair household shot on handheld Super-16. Most scenes are handled deftly with clever, believable and often hilarious dialogue. Only the allegory of the “14-pointed” stag (for the huntress Diana) is clumsy and ill-conceived. Frears reprises his work with writer Peter Morgan and actor Michael Sheen from the 2003 British telemovie The Deal which tells of the Machiavellian shenanigans between Blair (again played by Sheen) and Gordon Brown that led to Blair’s ascent to the leadership of the Labour Party. The film “The Queen” is, in many ways, Act 2 of The Deal.

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