the queen (2006)
Ah, ok, I can rest easy again. See, understandably, I was beginning to have a bit of doubt that I'd ever be able to find ten worthy films to pull together into a nice list for you at the end of this year, but with the new Stephen Frears film, The Queen, I'd say that list is starting to take shape. Yes, I can assure you now, you'll see this one mentioned in a month or two when I post the list, there's pretty much no doubt about it. It's all thanks to number of great elements that come together for a film that's utterly satisfying and captivating to the best of its ability. A big part of its success can be attributed to the lady most think will walk away with best actress for the year, Helen Mirren, and her entirely convincing portrayal of Britain's long-standing matriarch. For Mirren, this film is a chance to shine and we as an audience have a great time discovering the complexities of the character through this finely-paced film. It's akin to last year's Capote, which rode on the success of Hoffman's performance more so than the story, although The Queen decidedly has more going for than just the acting. This time, we're presented with a fully realized thematic interpretation of events, as well as some very nice direction. The constant presence of the queen's corgis doesn't hurt either.
One of the big fears I had about this flick was that it was going to be yet another award-season biopic that looked like they were becoming the staple of Hollywood once the fall movie season came around. Actually, this year it looks like they've dropped it altogether, because The Queen certainly isn't just a biopic and neither is anything else I can really call to mind at the moment except, perhaps, for Copolla's Marie Antoinette (though, I've heard that's not quite a standard biopic either). Well, that's at least encouraging. As far as The Queen is concerned, it's less about Queen Elizabeth herself as it is about the shifting mind set in British politics at the close of the twentieth century; you could just as easily rewrite a few scenes and call the film Tony Blair if you wanted to. As a matter of fact, that's one of the things that struck me particularly about this film: the degree to which it actually doesn't try to make its main character look good. This is not to say that it makes her look bad in any way, but for a large chunk of the film (mostly the middle act) I began to wonder if this would turn out to be a parody of the British monarchy. While Frears struggles to remain impartial and really tell the story of what the queen was going through, he begins to shift his allegiance in a small way towards Blair throughout the film, and I found that rather odd. What I didn't find odd about Frears direction was the inventive way he handles the picture, at least from the starting gate. As the film begins, we can sense an undertone of wry humor sprinkled throughout the frames. I don't even know if humor is the correct word for what Frears puts into the film. His portrayal of the Queen, and Mirren's performance start off quite tongue-in-cheek, and I really didn't except to see the film going in this direction. It was a welcome surprise. However, by opening that can of worms, Frears has made it a bit hard for himself to tell the story he needs to tell judging from what's in the script. He balances it nicely at first, then starts to slide into that parody I mentioned earlier. Eventually he rights himself and remedies the near-mockery with some good old fashioned standard movie scenes where he treats the material with reverence and respect. To be honest, these are the only critiques I can offer the film: The slight (and I do mean slight) inconsistencies in direction that really stray from what I would have liked to see in the film. However, obviously, it's not my film. What Frears decides to do with it is fantastic in its own right. He films it in a refreshingly reserved fashion, no big expensive crane shots, no fast cuts, and in cases where another director would have chosen a gratuitous exploitation of the material, Frears treats it with respect and tact. In particular, the scenes that revolve around Princess Diana's death, including the death scene itself, could have easily been played as manipulative melodrama, but Frears takes the high road and trusts that we're actually aware of the fact that when people die the people they knew are sad about it. The direction is a real high point for the film, and it's inexcusable on my part that this is my first Frears film, I'm going to be doing something about that as soon as possible.
The other high point of the film is obviously Helen Mirren's fantastic performance of Elizabeth. First of all, my hat's off to anyone in the crew who took part in transforming her into the queen. I didn't realize until after the film that she actually looks nothing at all like she does in the film, and the way she becomes the character is truly extraordinary. Her performance is based, in large parts, on nuance and the power of her expression over her line delivery and it is there that she excels most. Her character is one that keeps her appearance and her private thoughts as two totally separate entities and Mirren follows; her face rarely replicates what is in her mind, and being able to hide that takes some real acting chops. In her personal scenes, Frears shoots them from a distance, or even from behind her, never intruding on her personal space, never invading a moment of privacy. The character of the queen in this film enjoys that luxury that her posthumous costar, Princess Diana (rightfully never dramatized by an actress and rather by stock video footage), did not. In fact, Frears uses the video clips in a fantastic way, placing them in at just the right moment to juxtapose the events of the film. Michael Sheen, who plays Tony Blair, has the best scenes with Mirren and their exchanges are some of the best aspects of the film. He looks and acts convincingly as the young upstart Prime Minister who bring his modern ideas to the queen's doorstep. I wondered many times if the filmmakers were accurate in portraying the politicians, and their various advisors, as having such disdain for the monarchy. It seemed every one of their scenes were spent laughing at the ridiculously old-fashioned ideals of Queen Elizabeth and her family members. This film was simply a case of a clash of ideals, a clash of cultures, a clash of age and the concessions that must make on our values to preserve even the most antiquated establishments. Mirren's ambivalent performance matches this theme stride for stride throughout the film. The script for this picture is quite a complete one. Coming in a mere hour and a half, all the fat has been trimmed off, giving us a straightforward and compact film that gets to the core of what's going on and never strays off into unnecessary developments. The dialogue is nicely written and its sparse existence in most scenes really leaves the breathing room this film so desperately needed. With the help of Mirren, the silences and breaks in dialogue are incredibly effective. The cinematography is also a point to mention as it really captures the English countryside with grandeur and strength. There's one big helicopter shot that turns out beautifully, mostly due to the decision to let it play out, long and unbroken by cuts. It looks great. The Queen's gardens and even the insides of the palaces look great to through Frears' lens. I can say that all of the ingredients are in this one for a best picture nod, but most likely not a win.
So, check it out as soon as you can. It's not playing in many theaters, in fact the first showing I tried to get into was actually sold out (I don't even know how long it's been since that's happened to me) because it's showing at so few locations. If you can get to it though, it's the best thing out at the moment that I've seen. (Unless, of course, this The Fountain movie turns out to be anything ... which I'll find out tomorrow). So check it out, the direction is great, the acting is great and the script is quite a nice one, what more could you ask for? Well, I could've asked for a bit more, mostly in the realm of Frears not wavering in his style. But, oh well, that's the way it goes.