[Marxism] Helen Mirren as "The Queen"

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Sun Nov 5 07:37:16 MST 2006

While the British monarchy seems an institution so out of touch
with a modern supposedly democratic political culture, the rulers
of the United Kingom keep it afloat for important reasons. Should
the country's formal democratic institutions ever prove insuffient
to keeping the nation's capitalist system in line, the monarchy is
available for the basis of authority in a last-resort scenario. In
this movie, where Helen Mirren magnificently portrays a monarch of
the stiff-upper-lip variety, and with some endearing individual
traits, the most exposed character is Tony Blair. Today's British
Prime Minister is protrayed as a boy in awe of his nation's queen.
Politically, Blair is portrayed as someone who, while acting with
his own personal, pre-packaged political agenda, also uses Diana's
death as a way to try to strengthen the archaic monarchy.

It's fascinating to watch the portrayal, which strikes me as very
well authentic - of course I haven't studied the manner - but the
movie has that air about it, of Blair being brought in to meet 
Her Majesty for the first time after his election, and being told,
as he's about to enter the meeting, that at no time must he show
his back to the queen. Blair's wife is known to hold an anti-
monarchical viewpoint, which is shown in the movie as well. The
film focuses of course on the personality of Queen Elizabeth a
woman who's been on the British throne since Winston Churchill. 

The narrative action centers on how the British capitalist media
turned against the monarchy following the death of Princess Diana,
by its failure to come out an publicly mourn her death. She was,
as Mirren's character points out, no longer formally a member of
the royal family by that time, but the media-generated mass and
public mourning for the People's Princess, as Blair dubbed her,
forced the queen to come out and address her, am I really going
to use this term, "her subjects". With an adroit mixture of both
archival footage and acting, the film shows us once again how
versatile and talented Helen Mirren is. This queen has nothing 
at all in common with the flinty, abrasive Detective Chief
Inspector Jane Tennison of the PRIME SUSPECT series. Somehow, 
she doesn't even look like Tennison, at all. Most enjoyable.

Walter Lippmann
Los Angeles, California

September 29, 2006
However Heavy It Gets, Wear a Crown Lightly

Is there something in the air, say, the stench of death and decline
of empire, to have inspired the recent spate of films about imperial
power? Fashionistas of course are already worshiping at the altar of
“Marie Antoinette,” with its title bubblehead and hollow charms,
while Forest Whitaker devotees are savoring the outré venality of Idi
Amin in the rather too enthusiastically entertaining “Last King of
Scotland.” Those who think more crowned heads should have rolled in
the 18th century, in the meantime, can cozy up to “The Queen,” a
sublimely nimble evisceration of that cult of celebrity known as the
British royal family. (It opens the New York Film Festival tonight at
Lincoln Center and in theaters tomorrow.)

Directed by Stephen Frears from a very smart script by Peter Morgan,
who helped write “The Last King of Scotland,” also about crazy rulers
and the people who love (and hate) them, “The Queen” pries open a
window in the House of Windsor around the time of the death of Diana,
Princess of Wales, blending fact with fiction. It begins just days
before her fatal car crash in 1997, when the princess, glimpsed only
in television news clips and photographs, had completely transformed
into Diana, the onetime palace prisoner turned jet-setting divorcée.
The transformation was fit for a fairy tale: the lamb had been led to
slaughter (cue Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”) and escaped in triumph
(crank the Material Girl’s “Bye Bye Baby”). Elizabeth II wore the
crown, but it was Diana who now ruled.

How heavy that crown and how very lightly Helen Mirren wears it as
queen. With Mr. Frears’s gentle guidance, she delivers a performance
remarkable in its art and lack of sentimentalism. Actors need to be
loved, but one of Ms. Mirren’s strengths has always been her supreme
self-confidence that we will love the performance no matter how
unsympathetic the character. It takes guts to risk our antipathy, to
invite us in with brilliant technique rather than bids for empathy.
Even Mr. Whitaker’s Idi Amin seems to shed some tears. Ms. Mirren’s
queen sheds a few too, but having climbed deep inside Elizabeth II, a
vessel as heavily fortified as a gunship, she also coolly takes her
character apart from the inside out, piece by machined piece.

This toughness is bracing, at times exhilarating, and it also reminds
you of just how very good a director Mr. Frears can be; certainly
it’s a relief after the shameless pandering in his last venture,
“Mrs. Henderson Presents.” The new film serves as a return to form
for the director not only of “Dangerous Liaisons” and “The Grifters,”
both of which share with “The Queen” an interest in toxic tribal
formations, but also of more freewheeling ensemble entertainments
like “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.” The focus in “The Queen” remains
fixed on Elizabeth and her relationship with the newly elected prime
minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), but it also finds room for a
host of smaller, precisely realized characters, each adding daubs of
gaudy or grim color.

The secondary characters prove especially crucial because it’s
through their dealings with the queen, their awe and boobishness
(including James Cromwell’s dim-bulb Prince Philip), that we start to
get a handle on her. A creature of history and ritual, Elizabeth
might have been born in another century (or on another planet), a
point Mr. Morgan lays out on the page and which Mr. Frears
illustrates with lapidary attention to visual detail. Much of the
story takes place inside Buckingham Palace and at Elizabeth’s
Scottish estate Balmoral, sepulchers in which the royals have shut
themselves up with their servants and riches. Certainly the Queen
Mother (Sylvia Syms) seems half-dead already, her carefully planned
funeral almost an afterthought. It’s no wonder the outside world
seems so intrusive, even when its knocks are delivered by white

Diana’s death interrupts Elizabeth’s sleep in more ways than one: a
gentle hand comes knocking, and in time so does the rest of the
world, which takes to the abbreviated life of Our Lady of Televised
Confession with passion that in time borders on the religious, the
hysterical, the mad. Shortly after Prince Charles (Alex Jennings,
both sniveling and sly) brings Diana’s body back from Paris, the
queen retreats to Balmoral without comment, not a hair on her tightly
coiffed head out of place. Her stubborn quiet only fuels the
clamorous sorrow of the public, which lays thousands of bouquets
before Buckingham Palace, gestures of mourning that turn into a
veritable barricade as overt in menace and purpose as the upturned
paving stones of the French Revolution.

The ensuing crisis of confidence solidifies Blair’s power, bringing
the monarchy one step closer to the oblivion it deserves. As
Elizabeth strides around Balmoral in tweeds and sensible shoes, back
in London Blair undergoes a metamorphosis of his own, becoming the
official voice of healing.

Eager to please his masters, queen and public both, he makes the most
of Diana’s death, setting his stamp on the next decade. His wife
(Helen McCrory) can only cast an increasingly leery eye at his
performance of grief. (Oh, to be a fly on that household wall.) She
may not yet know it, but this is a battle, and she’s losing: Blair
doesn’t just mourn Diana; he all but becomes a new sacrament,
offering up his own touchy-feely persona for public consumption with
smiles and moist eyes. There is something appealingly puppyish about
the prime minister’s buzzing excitement as the crisis reaches its
apex: he’s seizing the day like a bone. But like all dogs Blair needs
someone to bring him to heel, and while Elizabeth’s authority is more
ceremonial than actual, she and he play their part in the pantomime
of power.

It’s this pantomime that fascinates Mr. Frears, who unmasks it as
much as he does the queen, whose dusting of face powder and glazed
stare pointedly evoke another, earlier, Elizabeth. Yet if the
director shows us the woman beneath the Kabuki-like facade, it’s not
to transform her into a softie, hankie at the ready; it’s to strip
away the mystique that once shored up the monarchy’s real power and
now merely serves as a fig leaf for its spoils.

Diana consecrates Blair, but so does Elizabeth, whose bafflement at
the sharing-and-caring of “the people,” as she calls them, almost
marks her for extinction. Her slow-dawning realization of the
cultural shift that had already changed the country is beautifully
realized, though not because the actress and her director mistake the
queen’s intelligence for sentiment. Elizabeth no more likes Diana
after death than before. When the queen does break her silence, as we
know she will, having watched the moment on television once upon a
time, it isn’t because of this vexing young woman. It’s because
Elizabeth, standing alone in the Scottish countryside, Mr. Frears’s
camera hovering close and then moving off to take in the glorious
view, has finally understood not only the implications of her past
but also those of the present.

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