Friday, 16 March 2007

The Queen (2006)

The Queen

If you haven't heard of The Queen you must have been hiding under a rock for the last few months.

Seemingly our only hope at this year's oscars, the film's star, Dame Helen Mirren seems to have won every 'Best Actress' gong going, for her performance here as our Royal Ruler.

Following a worrying trend that started with Pierrepoint, the film represents yet another 'made for TV' drama that, at the last minute, was pulled from the broadcast schedules and rushed into multiplexes instead. Is it any wonder that nobody bothers watching British TV any more? All the decent stuff's being shunted off to try and make money in cinema's instead!

Dame Helen Mirren won an oscar for her performance as Her Madge, The Queen

To say the film has been a huge success would be putting it mildly - just look at the box office takings of over $100 million! Not bad for a film that was produced with only a shoestring TV drama budget to feed it. The critics loved it. The public went and saw it. Dame Helen got an oscar. And seemingly only Mark Kermode had the nerve to swim against the tide pointing out that it really didn't need to be seen on the big screen and didn't really constitute a 'proper' film. Unfortunately I'd have to say I think he hit the nail on the head.

I'd also argue that it's the sort of 'fact based on fiction' piece that is completely misleading and rather dangerous in the 'believe everything you're told' society we tend to live in. In the same way that certain politicians had their entire careers ruined by the satirical TV show Spitting Image, because the public couldn't tell the difference between caricature and reality, The Queen dangerously presents numerous fictions for our entertainment, forgetting to point out that it isn't fact.

Dame Helen Mirren may well be a brilliant actress, but I think her performance here leans too much towards impersonation rather than the best female acting performance of the year, as so many international awards have indicated. There's nothing particularly wrong with impersonation - it's what the part demanded - but it does seem odd that so many people who were outraged at the notion that Sasha Baron Cohen might get a 'Best Actor' nomination for his performance as Borat think nothing of Helen Mirren getting the same for her impersonation of Her Majesty the Queen.

Michael Sheen and Helen McRory as Tony and Cherie Blair

The film, just in case anybody doesn't know, tells the story of the aftermath of the death of Diana Princess of Wales. Thanks to numerous - some might argue TOO numerous - newsreel clips from around the time of her death, she plays almost as big a role in the film as the two main leads: the afore-mentioned Dame Helen and Michael Sheen. Sheen plays the part of Tony Blair, a man in touch with 'his people' in a way that The Queen clearly is not, at least for the first half of the film. I can't help feeling that the actor has suffered somewhat from being in the shadow of the unstoppable Mirren. Where in other years it might have been him up for all the award ceremonies, the attention has all been on the Great Dame of British Acting. Of course Mirren's rivetting, but Sheen's performance is equally compelling, and equally awards-worthy.

Stephen Frears directs, but in a very pedestrian way and no real panache. The low budget is all too obvious, with most of the action seemingly taking place on a single set. There's only the odd sweeping helicopter shot of the local countryside and the endless newsreel clips to really hide the fact that this is a 'film' that didn't have much money at its disposal. Certainly this is not a DVD to show off the home cinema system, or to galvanise wannabe directors across the land into action.

Part of the problem with the film, on reflection, is not just the direction, but also the script. It's obvious that the 'story' is about The Queen, and indeed she's the only character here with any real depth or feeling, or who goes on any kind of journey. But her story is wafer-thin, and there's little to endear her to the general public - her life is too different and alien to most of us.

The film also relies far too much on what it ostensibly wants to criticise - the mass outpouring of emotion and over-the-top hysterical displays of grief for a woman that none of us really knew. I think this is called 'wanting to have your cake and eating it'. One suspects that part of the popularity of this film is the ease with which it enables those who got rather carried away the first time around to relive the experience as if it had happened just yesterday. It seems everybody can remember where they were, and what they were doing, on THAT day, and the film capitalises on that, but without really adding anything new.

Sylvia Sims plays HM The Queen Mother, depicted as an out-of-touch character who likes her tipple

If I seem too down on the film, it's because I'd expected a lot more from a 'film' that was nominated at The Academy Awards for 'Best Film'. It reminds me of other 'great' British efforts like The Full Monty and Shakespeare in Love - not bad films by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly not films I'd include in any 'Best films' list I was drawing up.

There's some nice subtle writing around real-life events here, and some excellent performances from the leading cast too, but the whole piece doesn't feel any more special than the sort of quality drama we used to get on TV for free on an almost weekly basis. And too much of it feels downright dishonest. But don't take my word for it - listen to the accompanying commentary track where the writer and director admit to how much of what is shown was made up, frequently around the tiniest sliver of a rumour or common gossip.

Let me give an example to illustrate my main objection. Towards the end of the second act there is a scene where the Queen, out driving on her own (really?!!)suffers a vehicle breakdown. She encounters a beautiful stag and shares a moment of empathy with it, only to find a short time later that it has been hunted and shot, probably by one of the princes. It's a scene which effectively proves the turning point for the character - an acceptance, and a humanity that the British people and the media in particular have been clamouring for. But it feels utterly contrived and artificial, and indeed the writers confess it was completely invented. I find it hard to identify with a film that presents endless fiction (Cherie Blair offering her husband fishfingers for tea, Blair himself spending most of the day in a football shirt etc) using the names and characters of people that are household names and still alive today.

Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) is not only upset at Diana's death, but terrified that he might get shot by a member of the public

The DVD Amray case arrives in a cardboard slipcase, which seems to be becoming more and more the norm with high profile DVD releases these days. Personally I'd prefer a chapter insert or even a booklet inside the case itself, but I guess beggars can't be choosers.

The low budget pretty of the original production pretty much extends to the extra's that could be made as well. There's the usual rather light Making Of, featureing marketing sound bites from the cast and crew, but looking suspiciously like everyone was filmed on the same day, and at the same location, between takes. It's more of a pre-release advert than anything else.

The commentary track, from director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan, should have proved interesting, but is let down by Frears having seemingly been struck mute for the duration. Morgan tries to get more than the odd grunt of agreement or disagreement out of him, but you can tell his heart's not really in it. The few interesting points made are down to Morgan being terribly indiscrete about others, rather than the 'insider's guide' one might have hoped for.

The Queen is definitely worth a rental, if only to see why Mirren's suddenly clutching a whole bunch of awards. But it's hard to imagine anyone ever wanting to sit through this rather pedestrian drama for a second time. As a result it's not a purchase I'd recommend.

It's not really known whether Tony Blair ever actually went down on one knee when meeting the Queen for the first time

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Though I agree that "The Queen" is basically an above-average TV movie, Dame Helen Mirren's iconic performance and well-deserved Oscar win alone justify its film release. (Come on, do you honestly believe that Dame Helen's brilliant turn would have received its rightful plaudits and rewards if it had been released as a TV movie with only the TV BAFTA's to award it? [the same TV BAFTA's who neglected to even NOMINATE her for her amazing turns in both "Elizabeth I" and "Prime Suspect 7"]

I agree that Michael Sheen was disgracefully overlooked (both in America and Britain) for his flawless turn as Tony Blair. However, I must emphatically disagree with your statement that Dame Helen's extraordinary personification of QEII was mere "impersonation".

What Dame Helen achieves in this role is nearly miraculous - rendering a remote, intensely private, emotionally aloof and unempathetic figure (how many of us can actually RELATE to the queen of England?) into a complex, accessible and sympathetic individual.

Simple impersonation of a living legend can only go so far (i.e. imitating their gestures, speech pattern, walk etc.). A well-trained monkey who watched a sufficient amount of video footage of the queen could have accomplished that. However, the most powerful and effective moments of Dame Helen's performance are the scenes in which she COULD NOT rely on mere imitation due to no video footage, eyewitness description, etc. being available (i.e. the queen's initial reaction to Di's death, her moving speech to Tony Blair over the telephone about the British people, the two stag scenes [the first of which would have been shamelessly cheesy without Dame Helen's skilled thespian acuity, IMO] the final meeting with Blair, etc. Even the scene in which the queen receives the flower from the little girl (another scene which could have easily devolved into maudlin schmaltz without Dame Helen's sure hand), which WAS filmed, imparts a complexity and infinitely touching humanity which would not have been possible with mere mimicry.