Monday, October 02, 2006

The Queen

Directed by Stephen Frears
Written by Peter Morgan

The beginning of the Oscar season started last week with the opening of the much-buzzed The Queen and Morgan's other scripted film The Last King of Scotland, and with it came all the overwhelming hype from the few media types who had already seen these movies. I sometimes wonder if hype generated from early screenings is often overcompensatory. Think about it--none of these people had to watch the movie with all this pretense--they saw it fresh, with no advance word, and sometimes just being in a screening that you know only a very few people in the world are privy to is excitement enough.

I know, with a preface like that, you might expect me to pan this movie or at least give you the "well it's not that great" review, or "surprise" you by saying, "This movie is all that and more!" The fact is, The Queen is another one of those movies anchored by tremendously dynamic performances, with not really a story to go along with it. This is the toughest challenge for my reviewing sensibilities; I've always had a problem giving a knockout review to a movie with only great performances to show for it. That might be enough for many--but I often wonder, five years from now if I'm sitting down and I run across this movie on TV, will I stop to watch it? That's the mark of a great movie to me.

The Queen concerns Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and the aftermath of Princess Diana's death. The royal family, none too warm with Di in these years, recently divorced from Prince Charles and dallying with Dodi Fayed at the time, wants to keep the matter private, although the sense is that the matter doesn't matter to them at all. Newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen, also very good), who stands for "modernization," became the face of England during those times, showing his public support of Di and what she represented, but behind the scenes stuggled to get Queen Elizabeth on board with public declarations, a move that soured many people to the Monarchy, and quite embarassingly to Blair, boosted his own popular support.

And that's pretty much the story--Blair trying to get the Queen to show some heart. How she gets to that place, according to the movie, is fairly interesting and complex. There's a sort of parallel between Di's death, which came from trying to outrun paparazzi (the event that made the profession a household name), and hunting deer (referred as "stalking" in the movie). Queen Elizabeth, we can tell, is divided between what she has been taught--the old way of being proper and dignified, and what she might feel as a modern woman, a little more open-minded about change, and well, "modernization." Princess Di, who personified that complete change in the Monarchy, was a threat and an antagonist to the old guard--could the Queen see Di in a positive light with all of that pomp and circumstance grilled into her? Of course, the answer isn't completely black and white, which gives the movie some credibility.

For reasons of its character complexity, The Queen is an outstanding motion picture, and honestly, couldn't be much better. But I say this considering some faults--like I said, the story itself isn't the big draw to this, it's performance. Mirren will easily get a nomination alongside Streep for The Devil Wears Prada, already making this a tough category. I think Sheen deserves consideration for his Tony Blair, but it might fall by the wayside after several other big pictures get released.

Faults--James Cromwell as Prince Philip does what he can, but his coldness and black humor grate after awhile. Also Sylvia Sims, as the Queen Mum is another sort of cold figure--and I get it, the royal family didn't like Di and it's appropriate, but they show no other character traits than pure frigidity. And Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) is seen as I-guess-that's-what-he-really-is: sniveling, and cowardly.

Veteran director Frears and breakout writer Morgan should get some credit here for taking a lot of the starch out of the Monarchy and infusing it with some humor and drama. The camera occasionally jitters, not "NYPD Blue" style but enough to give some immediacy to the proceedings and keeping things from being too high and mighty and self-serious.

There you go--it's a good movie, go see it when it comes to a theatre near you. For my tastes, I'd like to have a better overall story accompany it, but like I said, the movie could hardly be better than it is.


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