Tuesday, October 31, 2006

"The Queen"

Well, I had to see it, didn't I, Bush? "The Queen." What with being an ex-pat Brit and all. And I have to say it was a terrific movie. Maybe you saw it? If not, you'll no doubt have heard about Helen Mirren's incredible portrayal of Her Majesty. I was expecting something a bit harsher, a bit more satirical, but this performance really captured with a great deal of sympathy the essence of a woman trapped inside an outdated concept of her own institution.

The film had all the elements of tragedy, really--and I don't mean Diana's. Her death, dreadful and saddening though it was, had more to do with pathos than true tragedy: it tugged at the strings of the heart. The Queen, though, came across as a truly tragic figure: a person who had her great stature thrust upon her, caught in a deep inner conflict between her "duty" to her people, as she saw it--wrongly, as it turned out--and the turmoil of personal thoughts and feelings which she felt unentitled to allow to surface. Her blind spot was her inability to see, until it was almost too late, that her people needed something from her other than the protocols, trappings and traditions of the monarchy. In a moment of grief, they just wanted a "mum."

The queen portrayed by Mirren was also, to her cost, disastrously disconnected from those inner feelings. She had been brought up to believe that to supress them was a part of the role she had been given to play. So she failed to see the connection between her deep personal dislike and distrust of Diana and the course of her public actions following the accident. She saw herself as being "correct" in her stoical insistence on keeping the family's reaction "private", and failed to understand that her behavior was governed as much by her instinctive animus for the young woman her son had married, and whom she surely blamed for much of the public disenchantment with the monarchy.

At the same time, there was "greatness" in this character. Her "Majesty" was also captured with conviction. On the petty, negative side it came across as a nasty form of social snobbery, a presumption that goes along with unimaginable privilege. On the plus side, though, it was also, well, just "majesty"--a kind of natural dignity and sense of the gravitas of her position and responsibility and, yes, a real sacrifice of self-interest to the often painful necessity of being queen to a whole nation of people. Instilled in her from her youngest days was the imperative of putting others first--an imperative I know well from having been brought up with it myself.

The greatest, most tragic flaw of Mirren's--and perhaps the actual--queen was her failure to grasp the historical moment, the great social changes that the twentieth century had brought about. She was still living, in effect, in the world of a monarchy past, before the days of "People Power"--the movement most powerfully expressed, in England, precisely in the event of Diana's death. Your good pal Tony, Bush--just recently elected as the youngest Prime Minister of England in God knows how many years, was quick to recognize it: he comes off as something of a hero in the movie, succeeding, finally, in persuading the Queen to emerge from her stubborn isolation.

An intriguing subplot succeeds admirably in revealing this aspect of Mirren's character: it's the story of a great fourteen-point stag, spotted by the game wardens on the Queen's estate at Balmoral and seized upon by Prince Phillip as a way to distract the young princes' attention from their mother's death (at a time when they should rightly have been processing the grief.) This magnificent beast eludes the stalking of the royal males but shares his grandeur, proud and independent, with the Queen at a moment when she finds herself all alone amidst the natural splendor of the Scottish Highlands. She's clearly moved, rejoicing that her men have failed to find and shoot the creature; but later hears that he has strayed from her property and been shot elsewhere--by a commoner, no less, a London financial manager! Having notably refrained from paying the same respect to Diana, she insists on making the trip to see the animal's hanging, decapitated body and ponders the separated head with its imperial antlers. A powerful metaphor, I thought, for the Queen's dimly nascent understanding that the great days of the monarchy were past...

Anyway, listen, Bush, your Blair did come off well. A young, feisty PM, he had his finger on the pulse of the British people at that time, and was able to confront Her proud and stubborn Majesty with the reality of a deteriorating situation--a moment at which revolt was in the polite British air and the monarchy itself could have been in jeopardy. This movie "Blair", I thought, also learned something of the value of that institution, despite his wife's more cynical mockery of it. (A great, comical scene, by the way, when the couple are first introduced to the Queen's presence, and have to deal with the stiff protocols that govern such occasions!)

At the end, though, it was the Queen herself who waxed prophetic: having experienced, as she saw it, the humiliation of experiencing her people's anger and distrust, she warns Tony that his time will come. As indeed it has, Bush, thanks to Blair's unwise and inexplicable choices, first to join you in your ill-fated venture in the Middle East, and then to be deaf to the reaction of his people. He seemed to gain in wisdom from the experience of Diana's death and his deft diplomacy with the recalcitrant royals. But not enough, apparently.

As for the royals, well... I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it's an expensive luxury, a protraction of the world of aristocratic privilege that most other countries have abandoned. Why on earth should anyone hold power over others--no matter how circumscribed in the modern world--simply because of the accident of his or her birth? It seems absurd. But surely not much more absurd than the "democratic" antics we go through to elect our leaders, and with not much better results, it seems, these days: no offense, Bush, but the current power structure in this country was indisputably the product of wealth and privilege. And there's something venerable about so old and lasting a tradition, something comforting about a figurehead like the Queen. If only she could learn to be a "mum."

1 comment:

PK said...

I really wanted to see this movie after I saw Mirren on Jay Leno and Conan's show. Now after your review of it I know I want to see it! I have so many pictures of the Queen in a file in my computer. Being English too, she sort of gets to me... I'm not going to like the idea of her eldest taking over on some future date. Maybe by then her eldest Grandson will be able to take over, after all her son married a common woman, who was divorced. ... getting away from the movie... I want to see it:). Good post Peter