'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, January 12, 2007

Film Notes: The Queen 

I went to our local Sacramento arthouse theatre, The Tower Theatre on 16th and Broadway, to see this film with some trepidation. From the promotional campaign, it had all the earmarks of a movie produced to appeal to the crowd that eagerly awaits the ninth remake of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice. But, as we all know, advertising campaigns aren't known for their fidelity to actual content, and fortunately, that was the case here.

Upon seeing that the director was Stephen Frears, known for making films with a subtle, acute social insight, I experienced the first hint of optimism, and I wasn't disappointed. Of course, Helen Mirren's performance as Queen Elizabeth II is astonishing, as one expects from this brilliant actress, but she is assisted by a strong script by Peter Morgan that places her traumatic experience after the death of Princess Diana within a contemporary context.

At the beginning, the audience is induced to accept the common stereotypes, Diana was an angel, the Queen and the rest of royals cold hearted and self-absorbed. But, over the course of the film, the Queen is humanized, portrayed as someone caught unawares by the power of the global media, stunned by the discovery that even the royal family stands helpless before it, while it is suggested that Diana, generationally well versed in the art of media manipulation, was seduced by it, and narcissitically used it to destroy the credibility of the royals. Quite appropriately, Diana never appears as a character, but, instead, periodically intrudes upon the narrative as a ghostly video image. Diana had, in effect, already been killed by the media, having lost her individuality, even before her tragic automobile accident.

Another pleasant suprise was Michael Sheen's performance as Tony Blair. Indeed, the film is actually as much about Blair and his abandonment of his Labour idealism as it is about the crisis within the royal family after Diana's death. Blair had just been installed as Prime Minister when Diana died, and his closest advisors are startled by his increasing identification with the conservative royals as the media circus intensifies. Sheen, again assisted by Morgan's top drawer script, portrays Blair sympathetically, but accurately, as a middle class man who aspires to political power so that he can attain social acceptance by the elite. Through such a well rounded, empathetic presentation, Sheen (and Morgan) indict Blair as a cogenial little man who would cheerfully sell out anyone or anything for his self-aggrandizement, and it is an indictment far more compelling than any issued by the left.

In a telling scene near the end, a scene that highlights the allegorical aspect of this part of the story, the Queen, after having been subjected to the most brutal personal insults by her subjects, finds herself, to her dismay, being consoled by Blair. Never mind, he says, the bond between you and your subjects is now stronger than ever. The Queen, not so sure, demurs, and warns, someday, Mr. Blair, you may also find yourself equally reviled by the public. Blair, of course, ever supremely confident of his hold over the populace (and, at times, even the royals), expresses his disagreement through his body language. Frears and Morgan, with benefit of hindsight, recognized that such arrogance lead inevitably to the catastrophe in Iraq.

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