By Al Kratina
Jan 10, 2007 - 21:03
In terms of filmmaking, there can be much of interest in the lives of the rich and idyll. Extravagance, debauchery, perhaps the odd MDMA-fueled escort orgy in the penthouse of an Ibiza Hilton, all can make for compelling viewing. The rich, idyll, and British, on the other hand, lead lives that are not quite as gripping. They do take the odd afternoon walk with the dogs on Sundays, but other than that, much of their time seems to be spent puttering about and waiting around for tea. So, it's a surprise that Stephen Frears' new film,
The Queen, is as interesting as it is. What could have been a film roughly as exciting as a visit to your grandmother coupled with an etiquette lesson is actually an intriguing character study, albeit a somewhat reserved one.
The main strength of The Queen comes from the fact that it focuses on a period in Elizabeth II's life, rather than telling the story of her life itself. The tendency when making a film like this, which is essentially a bio-pic, is to have the structure of the story dictated by the events of the subject’s life, milestones replaced by plot points. The problem is, most people's lives are rambling, uneven affairs. They're amorphous, stagnant, and often marred by long stretches of sitting on the couch watching Another World while eating Bonbons. By focusing on an event instead of a life, the same character exploration can be accomplished, without awkwardly cramming someone's entire existence into a three-act screenplay. That's the case here, with The Queen focusing on the period of Elizabeth's life immediately following the death of Diana Spencer, when the Royal Family went through a public relations crisis. Cocooned and distant, the Royal Family's prim and proper response to the death is at odds with Britain's wailing and gnashing of teeth, and the tension between the two, while treated respectfully and fairly by director Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan, creates the essential conflict in the film.
Of course, all this is dwarfed by Helen Mirren's performance, which is being wildly praised by critics. And it is good, to be sure, effectively communicating emotion through the veil of Borg-like formality. Still, it's always difficult to tell if a stone-faced performance is a deliberate choice or the result of botched botox injections, though with Mirren, we'll give the benefit of the doubt. Her foil in the film is Michael Sheen, as newly sworn in Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. His modernizing views threaten to update Britain's traditions from the Dark Ages until, I'd say, midway through the Renaissance. Mirren is stoic and cold, whereas Blair, naturally informal and emotive, is quite uncomfortable when confronted with the conservative royals. The script is nuanced, presenting the characters in neutral tones, refusing to either judge or whitewash any of the unfortunate decisions made by the Royal family. What's more, everything is motivated, presented fairly, at least until the end, when a strange about-face by Blair threatens to take the wind from the film's sails. That aberration aside, however, the film's strength lies in its script, with Mirren and Sheen's strong performances adding to the effectiveness. Other performers, like James Cromwell as Prince Consort Philip, stand out as well, though Alex Jenning’s portrayal of Prince Charles as a mix of android and stroke victim is a little unsettling.
Director Stephen Frears has been up and down over his past few films, with gems such as Hi-Fidelity starkly contrasting with indulgent Oscar-baiting crap like Mrs. Henderson Presents. In The Queen, he makes an interesting film, with strong editing punctuating particularly effective scenes as well as spotlighting Mirren's performance without allowing it to overtake the movie. Another interesting choice is the blend of archival and video footage with the rest of the film, which adds a nice post-modern touch. Again, it's subtle, and never overpowers the story, allowing for a film that's as balanced as the story it's trying to tell.
Rating: 7 /10