by Brad Nelson
I’m a long-time PBS/BBC junkie, so this British film tickles my Masterpiece Theatre fancy. And Helen Mirren is what I call (and I’ll try to use some British understatement) an “accomplished actress.” No…heck, I just can’t do British understatement. She is a near goddess of actresses. There are few people who, by their very presence, can carry a movie, even if the movie they are in is quite mediocre. She is one of those. And this movie is certainly above mediocrity. But a review of a movie such as this can’t help but be somewhat of a political commentary, for this movie is as much a documentary (and not necessarily an unbiased one) as it is a movie. To comment on the movie is to also comment on the politics of it, which I love doing anyway. And I’m willing to be a pariah and have an actual honest opinion about the very content of this movie. But I’ll try to be fair. First off, had I known that this movie was almost entirely about the Queen’s reaction to Diana’s death, I probably wouldn’t have watched it. I was long ago tired of the whole Diana-affair soap opera and tragedy. Parts of this movie are insufferable (at least to me) because parts of the real story had become insufferable. I realize Diana was beautiful, stylish, warm, generous, loving, compassionate, caring, socially responsible, and extremely generous with her time in helping other people in a list of causes quite literally longer than my arm. Apart from her taking her private squabbles with the royal family public, I have nothing but admiration for her and for her good works. Each of us could hold her up as a fine example of service to humanity.
But in this movie I found myself time and again siding with the queen. What’s wrong with a little quiet dignity? Has the whole country gone mad? Why is everything now such an emotion-fest? Give me Winston Churchill and his call for “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” and not Tony Blair (and the British press’) call for tears, tears, tears, and tears. But time after time this movie paints QE II as a cold, uncaring, out-of-touch person while everyone else is hip, caring, cool, and in-the-know. Hey, I’m very sorry that Diana got killed while traveling in some fancy limo with her Prince Charming. Oh, how tough life must be for the monied. And I’ll admit that Charles screwed her over pretty royally, no pun intended. He was in love with another woman from the get-go. And even though Di’s head was turned by Royalty and the chance to be a princess, she at least deserved a husband who was faithful into and through the honeymoon. I think we’re all familiar by now with the tales of Charles making phone calls to Camilla even while on his honeymoon. At least that’s what I have read. But the movie also makes a great point, and it’s one often overlooked. There was the public Diana and there was the private Diana. The Royals saw both. And they, unlike the fawning and rather credulous public, knew both intimately and saw the darker side to Diana. And it seems Diana was what you’d call high maintenance — even an emotional basket case at times. This is the side I always saw. Having lived a good deal of my life in and around politics and politicians, this is rather common. You get the public front, which can be a really good front, and then you have the person in their personal life, and the two can be like night and day. I guess Tiger Woods would be a timely example of that.
I’m glad that, in the end, the movie portrayed the Queen fairly kindly. The bad guys surely seem to be Charles, the press, and a few crass anti-monarchists in the Blair administration. And I wonder if that is an accurate portrayal of Blair’s wife. If it is, what a biatch. But, however one feels about the idea of a monarchy in these modern times, the Queen has been an upright, honorable person — a person of class and dignity.
And this is in great contrast to so much of what flew around Diana and some of the other younger members of the royal family. The younger generation, while surely much more open and touchy-feely, had lost that bit of British reserve that perhaps was unfairly and too soon cast aside as mere “repression.” I think we now see that there is indeed some substance to that thing we call quiet reserve and which others denigrate as “uncaring.” The scene that I liked best in the movie is one that also describes me to a tee. The Queen’s private secretary was in a room (of mostly women) watching early reports about Diana’s death. He made some comment about how all this seemed to be much ado about nothing and then turned and looked over his shoulder and saw that all the women were weepy-eyed and crying.
For some reason, many people latched onto Diana as a cause célèbre. I saw people do the same thing during the O.J. case. I felt as out-of-touch with mankind as the Queen did when I remember some friends of mine who were absolutely ecstatic that the murderer, O.J. Simpson, was let off. I didn’t understand that at the time and I really didn’t understand all the fawning over Diana who seemed at times to be a publicity hound and who took a rather aggressive and opportunistic shot at being the highest of the high and was consumed by it. That’s tragic, but there are far worse tragedies than that happening every day to some very innocent and anonymous people. There seemed to me to be a distinct lack of perspective to this whole affair, but we do worship our celebrities here in America as well. In one scene in this movie, the Queen, who is still trying to come to some kind of understanding over the public’s reaction to Diana’s death, laments that such things can’t be handled with a quiet dignity. And I just wanted to jump through the television screen and quietly, and with dignity, sit down with the Queen right then and there and have a nice cup of tea. I’d rather do that than line the barricades in front of a stack of flowers and weepy messages.
Call me a Cretin, if you will, but I overdosed on this whole Diana thing long ago, long before she died, long before her second or third book came out telling us all how horrible the royal family was and how innocent and wonderful she was. Well, there are two sides to every story and I think Diana’s side has been given much too much indiscriminate fawning praise. She did good, but she also seemed to be somewhat of a head-case and a conniver. The Royal Family surely are a somewhat odd family, but aren’t we all? But there’s something to be said for a quiet dignity and I find very little to be said for the schmaltzy flood of tears that accompanied Diana’s death. But watch this movie and decide for yourself. One of the brilliant aspects of “The Queen” is that these two perspectives are so wonderfully contrasted and compared. Now, with the political and social commentary out of the way, what about the movie itself as entertainment? Well, it actually was pretty good. I would have preferred that most of the movie not be centered around Diana, for this movie, after all, was titled “The Queen.”
And Queen Elizabeth II has lived a long and eventful life. They could have spent quite a lot of time in the war period, a time that was very formative to the Queen and to the British people, a time that formed a permanent and close bond between the two that endures even until today — even through what is perceived as a very bad handling of Diana’s death.
But this context is never developed. We get the soap opera instead. But the extraordinary acting of Helen Mirren carries such weight and dignity that she anchors this movie completely, and anchors it in what surely is the reality of the character and personality of QE II. Call it “cold” or call it “calm,” but it certainly is something remarkable. And if you’re tired of our Jerry Springer culture, you might find QE II to be refreshingly reserved instead of distant. But either way, Mirren makes this movie special. 3 out of 5 stars. • (847 views)