Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The resentments of an old woman: Helen Mirren’s The Queen



People often question the value of the British monarchy. For example, in the 1970s, Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols made his career by singing “God Save the Queen/ She ain’t no human being . . . A mere figurehead / She’s not what she seems.” In recent years, her majesty seems like a throwback, more a symbol of previous empire than a real monarch, someone good for the tourist trade, while the prime minister and the parliament hold the real power over England. At one point in The Queen, starring Helen Mirren, Tony Blair’s cynical wife characterizes the royal family as an “emotionally retarded” bunch of freeloaders on the British taxpayer.

To the credit of director Stephen Frears, however, The Queen entertains multiple perspectives of her majesty, Queen Elizabeth, and we see her strengths and weaknesses come out once Princess Diana suddenly dies in a car accident in 1997. While just about everyone in England and across the world was overwhelmed with grief and a sense of guilt in the way the paparazzi on motorcycles helped cause the accident, the royal family has distinctly mixed feelings. Once they find out about her death, The Queen’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh (played by the guy who played the farmer in Babe, James Cromwell) complains “Diana is proving to be just as annoying dead as she was when alive.” Even though Princess Diana became extremely popular after her storybook wedding to Prince Charles, she did not get along well with the royal family, and she had divorced Charles shortly before the accident. Her sudden death has the effect of making her a media saint. The newly anointed prime minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) understands the need to publicly acknowledge the country’s emotional debt to Diana by making a moving speech about her as the “people’s princess.” Then, as the British turn the front of Buckingham Palace into a national shrine full of flowers and dedications, the Queen reacts coldly to the news of Diana’s passing, and wants to keep the funeral private. While the people wonder why there’s no flag flying half-mast over Buckingham Palace, and why the Queen hasn’t said or done anything to acknowledge their grief, the royal family ducks out to one of their million acre estates so that Diana’s two sons can get plenty of fresh air stalking deer. Over the course of one week, the film charts the way the public gradually becomes enraged with her absence until one fourth of the populace wants the monarchy overthrown.

At the center of all this turmoil, a humorously plain fuddy-duddy woman gets increasingly bewildered. Wearing granny glasses, a scarf over her head, a trench coat, and bulky shoes, Helen Mirren looks like just another prosperous little old lady on her way to a church social, and the film finds a rich vein of irony in contrasting her look with lady Di’s. In one scene, the Queen lies glumly in bed in her dressing gown, her gnarly bare feet sticking out as the television shows beautiful dewey-eyed Diana in close-up speaking about how Prince Charles’ love for Camille Parker Bowles ruined their marriage. How can Elizabeth compete with such effortless charisma? Perhaps part of Elizabeth’s problem was any older woman’s resentment and jealousy of younger female beauty, and besides, aren’t the British famous for hiding their emotions? The Queen speaks on behalf of “restrained grief, and sober quiet mourning,” but the film shows how regal decorum has its limitations in our media-saturated age. The public sees her aloofness as a rejection of their common humanity, and so like the angry mob in Marie Antoinette, they turn against her.

Ultimately, Queen Elizabeth proves worthy of her crown, even as she finds herself humiliated by the whiplash reactions of the British tabloids to her every gesture. By expertly combining all of this focused media drama with Helen Mirren’s understated performance, The Queen unassumingly becomes a powerful film. Historically, there’s further irony in the way that Tony Blair’s political fortunes have fallen in recent years while the Queen, even today, quietly endures.

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