Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Queen

Although movies like 'The Queen' might not normally be one's cup of tea, so to speak, this particular biopic is of interest not only because of the unprecedented amount of publicity it is receiving of late, but also because most of the characters portrayed on screen are alive, and still in power. Centering around the appointment of Tony Blair as prime minister, and the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana, the movie portrays such movers and shakers as the current queen of england, the current british prime minister and his wife, and of course the delightful Alistair Campbell.

Now, biopic etiquette traditionally waits for a death to trigger the production of such a movie, but 'The Queen' has twisted this rule to its own nefarious advantage. The death of Lady Di resulted in a massive shift of public opinion in relation to the british royal family, and of course in relation to the new prime minister, a certain Mr. Tony "I know Noel Gallagher" Blair. The fact that these people are still alive and moreover, still in power, makes this movie more of a daring undertaking, and adds a little spice to proceedings.

'The Queen' is essentially a window into the operation of a dysfunctional family. However, the Windsors are not being lambasted or lampooned in this movie, with the possible exception of Charles. This portrayal of Elizabeth is affectionate, with the Queen demonstrating human characteristics behind the duty to the crown, stiff upper lip and all that. Helen Mirren's performance is excellent, no question, and she manages to be both stoic and emotional at the same time, something few actors are capable of.

One scene in particular is memorable for me. In an unprecedented move engineered by Blair, the Queen agrees to make a public appearance at Buckingham Palace to visit the memorials being laid by the public for Diana. As she reads the sympathy cards, she numerous remarks directed at the other members of the royal family, and how Diana was "too good for them", or that "they should have gone first." As the Queen reads these cards, a tangible manifestation of the almost total erosion of public affection towards her and her family, she is visibly wounded. However, she is also duty-bound to repeatedly turn and face the crowds of on-lookers and press, smile, and demonstrate her solidarity with the people at this time of their mutual grief. This conflict between public opinion and private emotions of the monarch is at the heart of this movie.

Were it not for Helen Mirren, this character could be quite difficult to relate to. However, Mirren's physical transformation is quite remarkable. We see her walking in a number of scenes, and her very posture is regal, with an emphasis on restraint and control. Tom Cruise employed this kind of technique to play his coiled spring of a hitman in 'Collateral', and his results were also successful. Helen Mirren's physical transformation becomes part of the mask, part of the character, and after the first few minutes of the movie, it becomes increasingly difficult to actually recognise the Helen Mirren we know.

Hollywood loves this kind of acting, time and time again rewarding actors who play characters that are far removed from themselves. Think 'Forrest Gump' (Tom Hanks), 'Ray' (Jamie Foxx), 'Walk the Line' (Reese Witherspoon), 'Rainman' (Dustin Hoffman), 'My Left Foot' (Daniel Day Lewis), and 'The Aviator' (Cate Blanchett). These roles allow actors to show that they are really acting. Contrast with this a performance such as Ryan Gosling's in 'Half Nelson', which is anchored in reality and subtly executed. Gosling has no chance of an Oscar this year, but PCMR now believes that, unless Meryl Streep works some kind of Hollywood voodoo, Helen Mirren is an absolute banker for Best Actress.

However, Mirren's regina is not the only remarkable aspect of this movie. (Careful, Ed) The excellent script by Peter Morgan, who has had a truly remarkable year in 2006 (he also wrote the 'Last King of Scotland') allows Mirren and the supporting cast room to manoeuvre, despite the shackles of these characters. This could so easily have been a collection of impersonations or celebrity caricatures, but the depth of the script makes these people believable as humans in their own right, even despite the looky-likey baggage that they bring with them.

Michael Sheen, in particular gives an excellent performance as the man who would be prime minister. This Blair character has a unique relationship with the Queen, engineered primarily by his duty as a representative of the public at the time of Diana's death. His job is to change Royal tradition, to modernise them at a time when this type of unsolicited change - involving the most change-resistant family that can exist - may just preserve the existence of the British monarchy. Sheen's resemblance to Blair is uncanny, with his little 'you know's and 'sort of's adding to the impression that this is Tony Blair on screen. He very effectively portrays a character in over his head, but coping, and learning as he goes, and his scenes with Helen Mirren are warm and engaging.

James Cromwell crops up as the notorious Prince Phillip, and he has some decent lines, comparing the british people to a crowd of zulus at one point in a thoroughly non-PC remark, echoing some of his more 'colourful' outbursts. However, Cromwell is not in the same league as Mirren and Sheen here, despite his character's pure novelty value, he is literally outshone.

The production of the Queen lovingly recreates Buckingham Palace, Balmoral and sets the scene immaculately. Stephen Frears is already an incredibly accomplished director , with thoroughly solid and memorable movies such as 'My Beautiful Launderette', 'The Grifters', and 'Dangerous Liaisons' to his name. But with 'The Queen', Frears has garnered huge international critical and industry acclaim, and is almost certain to finally pick up at least a Bafta for his troubles. (Plus he's also head of this year's jury at Cannes, so maybe he can engineer a Palme d'Or for himself! Ed)

As I said at the outset, PCMR did not expect 'The Queen' to be one's cup of tea at all. However, there is genuinely a lot to recommend about it. Well acted, well written and well directed, it's a window into a private world, and a believable portrayal of a figurehead who would normally shun this sort of limelight. Helen Mirren's regina is truly impressive. (Last one. Ed)., the Irish gambling site, has her at 33-1 on to pick up the Oscar, and after seeing the Queen, PCMR thinks they might have a point there.

The verdict: Tightly scripted, extremely well acted. An interesting, daring biopic, and worth a gamble.
The rating: 7/10

No comments:

/** Amazon Affiliates code /** Google Analytics Code