Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Queen (2006)

I've just watched this movie for the first time and was to surprised to find it's such a comedy. Well, comiCAL would be more correct. Any movie based on historical events is going to take creative license with the truth, but this movie took so much license as to be libelous. It's perfectly entertaining, but as with Oliver Stone's JFK, I worry about the people who weren't there (or who were there and are just too lazy to remember) will mistakenly take the story depicted here as the true one. Common sense would tell viewers otherwise, because, of course, no one knows what went on inside of the palace but the royals, but once you weave real news footage into imagined moments, the edges blur and some begin to think they're viewing a documentary rather than a drama. Of course, there are docudramas which reenact true events and pride themselves on factual authenticity. This ain't one of them.

First of all, I don't know why it's called The Queen. As Tony Blair says, in 1997 (when this movie takes place) the Queen had reigned for 2500 weeks. Diana's funeral was just 1 week in 2500 and we hardly scrape its core. For that week, we get no deep insight into Elizabeth. In fact, she's more of a figurehead in this script than she is in the real life UK. A better title would have been Balmoral Blunder.

While charming royal retellings like The King's Speech or Mrs. Brown may be no more accurate, they are certainly less fancifal than The Queen. This film gives us Elizabeth, Philip, the Queen Mother, Charles and the boys all living in one house, sharing meals, hunting and barbecuing as a family and watching telly together in the evenings, just like the Waltons -- only crowned. It's a depiction as shallow as the public relations scandal at the center of the plot.

The movie starts with Blair's first visit with Elizabeth II after winning the election. As is befitting the head of the Labour Party, Blair is presented as down-to-earth, displaying no airs. As they are instructed on how to address Her Majesty, Blair's nervous and compliant, while his wife Cherie is derisive. The queen was given the throne as a birthright, but her husband was elected by millions. Her disdain for the monarchy is an early representation of the public's growing resentment towards the Windosors that is at the heart of this story. Only Cherie's immediately tiresome while the rest of the world only becomes so.

The Queen is painted as canny, both aware of and amused by the effect she has on others and objective. When told by her advisor that Cherie only half-curtsied grudgingly, rather than take affront Elizabeth only notes that she doesn't judge the degree of anyone's bow. She leaves that to her sister. Still, she's conscious of hierarchy and mindful of appearances, gently guiding Blair in proper protocol as he becomes familiar with his new duties.

While at Balmoral Palace, she is startled out of sleep one night by news of Diana's car accident. Initially, I don't think Queen Liz would be that shocked to be awakened in the middle of the night. This is a woman who calmly chatted up Michael Fagan, a burglar who broke into her royal chambers back in 1982. With her large family and traveling schedule (at the time), I imagine she'd hardly be ruffled by late night phone calls.

When she's told Diana's had a car accident in Paris, she's more annoyed than distraught. They hadn't even expected Diana to be in Paris, but they know what the Princess is like. Unpredictable, irresponsible. At first, the accident seems like just another unwanted headline. Elizabeth admonishes Charles for wanting to take the royal jet and incur the type of expenditures for which the royals have been chided by the public. It's not until later that they learn Diana's crash is fatal. Charles seems truly griefstricken. Philip less so. He even smiles when he observes that when he told Margaret Rose to return home from her vacation, she remarked that Diana was more trouble dead than she had been alive. Elizabeth's personal feelings about the loss are masked. She voices her concern for William and Harry "the boys" often, but from a distance, never interacting directly with them. She's not cutting to the point of cruelty as Philip and even the Queen mother are, but her placidity is meant to tell its own cold tale. She is more emotional about her tea or famous corgies than about her former daughter-in-law's demise.

Blair immediately realizes that there will be great public fallout over the tragedy and quickly issues a statement that captures public sentiment, when he calls Diana "the peoples' princess." Charles and Diana having divorced the previous year, Elizabeth does not think this is a matter that should merit her official concern, since Diana is no longer HRH. She is relieved to tell Blair that the Spencers have insisted upon a private funeral for Diana, so it's out of her hands, isn't it? It's rather absurd for him to think that its incumbent upon her to do more.

Blair, whose staff zealously monitors the unending news reports, knows that he's watching a grave misstep unfold. The public perceived Diana as a victim when she was alive blaming Charles alone for their failed marriage and any suffering Diana expressed, genuine or faked. Compared to Diana's apparent warmth, accessibility and beauty, the royals seemed aloof, outdated and out of touch. Reacting to her death, the world annointed Diana with instant sainthood and her former family could only suffer in comparison. Blair recognized that each day that passed without the royals making a public acknowledgment or appearance they were condemning themselves to mounting calumny and contempt in the eyes of their sovereigns. He navigates a thin line between showing the required deference to the queen while addressing the fact that the unprecedented world attention being given to Diana's death has made its handling a political matter, not just a social one. Commands needed to be given and, in the end, it was the PM's office telling the palace how things would be done, not the other way around.

The private funeral the Queen requested (on behalf of the Spencers, she said) is a non-starter. There will be a public memorial in Westminister Abbey. World leaders and celebrities alike will attend. In fact, they will use the advance plans they had for the Queen Mother's funeral and, with minor modifications, use it for Diana's instead. The royals are aghast. But it's out of Elizabeth's hands. They've gone over her head and there's nothing she can do but graciously concede on official matters, but surely not the personal ones as well. If not queen of the United Kingdom isn't she still master of her own domain? She refuses Blair's suggestion that they lower the flags on the royal residences (which are supposed to denote whether or not the queen is in residence, not be used as a display of regal mourning), return to Buckingham Palace from Balmoral and issue a public statement. She's got grandsons to attend to and hasn't time to cater to the selfish world's media-frenzied demands, wherein lies my problem: with this movie and with life.

From what we've seen, Elizabeth is just paying lip service to her family's need to heal privately, to disguise her dispassion. But what if that weren't the case? What if she really was sympathetic to Harry and William's real pain and didn't want to put their sorrow on parade? What if she believed, as Charles Spencer himself said, that public mania contributed to Diana's death and the royals wanted her funeral to be an end to the lurid fascination with the Princess, not a continuation of it? What if she didn't want to reward the paparazzi that chased Diana's car through that Paris tunnel with more pictures, magazine sales and undeserved profits? What if she simply wanted to stop feeding the vultures? What gave the public the right to tell Diana's family they couldn't finally have her to themselves? As important, why do people insist on insincere overtures. What do those satisfy. If they're right and Elizabeth hated Diana, why want her to give a public statement expressing grief she doesn't feel? Just so you can say it's phony? After every scandal, the world inevitably clamors for an apology from the wrongdoer and I always wonder why. What good is a an "I'm sorry," from someone who doesn't mean it? Isn't standing on empty ceremony one of the things that detractors criticize about the monarchy, in general?

For the sake of argument, lets assume the Queen didn't lie. She said she wanted to eschew an ostentatious funeral out of respect for Diana, not the opposite. She didn't want Britain to make a spectacle of the tragedy. Let's accept her concerns as earnest ones. If Elizabeth's protestations were genuine, then Blair's were wrong. Our society is more voyeuristic today than it was then. We judge dancing, singing, survivor skills, marriage proposals and tragedy. Is the victim crying enough or too much? Reality tv has combined with social media to convince us that if you don't wear your heart on your sleeve, you don't have one. Pics or it didn't happen. We need public validation of everything we think and feel. If that means throwing unwilling gold fish into a bowl so we can stare at them, so be it. This mentality is an undeniable trend, but not an unobjectionable one.

If Elizabeth and the royals wanted to resist it and maintain their stoicism in the face of devastation as they did earlier in Elizabeth's life, like when Edward VIII abdicated the throne or the British and Germans battled over the White Cliffs of Dover, then they had that right. When the tabloids demanded a performance from them, refusing would have been the harder road, but also the highest. The citizenry can demand to know how many of their taxes dollars are spent on maintaining the monarchy. They can their involvement in government. But what right have they to dictate the royals' interaction with each other? The queen's treatment of Diana is not a matter of public concern. The people could set up their own local memorials and shrines to Diana, without insisting that her ex-family do it for them. It was more important that Diana's funeral fulfill Harry and William's need than those of Diana's fans. If the monarchy resisted an exploitation of the tragedy as a matter of honesty, not hypocrisy, then right was on their side.

Of course, the movie says it wasn't. The Windsors just plain hated Diana's guts and chose not to observe her death with grand gestures, because they didn't think she deserved them. Although early scenes suggested that Charles was an exception to this rule, the story later reveals that he was only pretending to mourn his ex to gain public sympathy. Diana had foisted blame on him for years and he saw her death as an opportunity for redemption. Playing an Oedipal game of Mutt & Jeff, by having it leak that he sided with Blair, Charles hoped to shift resentment for Diana's mistreatment to his mother and away from himself. Screenwriter Peter Morgan is a Brit and, I suppose, has seen a lot more of Charles than I have, but I don't understand how he could make him such an ingratiating toadie. Charles has displayed many unlikable traits over the years, but I've never perceived him as sniveling. His problem was always that he cared too little for public opinion, when did he ever grovel for it? He's been more conciliatory in the last ten years of his life than he ever was in the first 55. As far as Princes of Wales go, the man in the film more closely resembled Bertie than Charles. This film has him lowering the flag at his residence, as a rebuke of his mother's decision not to lower hers. In truth, the family as a whole probably assumed that a lowered flag at Kensington could represent their collective homage to its departed mistress. One waved at half mast for all of them. I'd view it as a gracious gesture rather than conniving, but it's not my job to ratchet up the drama.

Westminister Abbey funeral plans in motion, the Queen stays in Balmoral where Philip is trying to keep William and Harry distracted with long walks and hunting. They've heard there's a large stag on the grounds, a 14-pointer the type that hasn't been glimpsed on their land in decades. Having desserted Charles when he begins to lament Diana as a wonderful mother, in silent comparison to his own icy one (none of us can forget the newsreel footage of Elizabeth reuniting with her son -- barely more than a toddler -- after an absence by shaking his hand), Elizabeth is now driving alone when her car breaks down. She calls the groundskeeper and diagnoses the problem. After all, she was a mechanic during the war and she knows her stuff! She waits for a ride with ever practical, calm at first. But soon we see tears drop. Is she crying for herself or Diana or for other things lost, long before?

Turning, she spots the majestic grand stag in the distance. He freezes in a picturesque moment and she is awestruck. She hears a gun in the distance and shoos him away. She knows that Philip has the boys hunting the stag, but she wants/needs for him not to be caught. He's a relic. Once common, but now so rare. She wants to preserve this magnificent creature and everything he stands for, because it's everything she stands for.

Back at the palace, Tony Blair telephones and Elizabeth takes the call in the kitchen, after politely asking the staff's permission. Blair tells her that public opinion is against her. 1 in 4 people want to do away with the monarchy. Elizabeth is shaken by this news, but doesn't let Blair know. The tabloids are whipping the public into a hysteria and she won't be swept up into it. Meanwhile, I'm thinking to myself "1 in 4? That means she has a 75% approval rating. What's so bad about that? Obama would kill for those figures. Why so down, Queenie?" Though disheartened, Elizabeth holds her ground, won't lower the flag, won't give a public statement, won't leave Balmoral to go to Buckingham Palace.

Blair fighting to control his temper, accepts her stubborn stance, but when she hangs up, her advisor picks up the phone. He's been listening all along (is this kosher? I know that both Blair and the royals constantly have people speaking for them, but listening in on their calls without notice as well?). He tells Blair he should be patient with Elizabeth since this is the worst thing she has been through since her uncle abdicated the throne, an act which (legend has it) killed her father prematurely, when he had to take the throne in his brother's place heading right into WWII. The advisor tells Blair that Elizabeth never got over this trauma, which softens Blairs view of her. Well, ok ... but I'm not sure how Elizabeth being mad at Uncle Eddie 60 years earlier is related to her impassive attitude about Di's death in 1997. I mean, did Liz use to be a passionate, playful lass until Wallis Simpson's fatal attraction taught her how to repress her feelings from then on? Did they handle that past scandal in a way that has informed her life ever since? Possibly, but since the similarities aren't obvious, I wish this advisor would have spelled them out more clearly. I mean, he proved himself a buttinski already. He could at least be one with helpful details.

Elizabeth makes up "Mummy" to see if the Queen Mother thinks she's taking the right path. She does. Cherie's foil, the Queen Mother feels that Blair was merely elected, but the Queen holds her position through a higher power and should not let transient public pressure sway her. She owes it to everyone to maintain tradition, rather than cave in to what's popular. The haughty Philip thinks opposing viewpoints are unworthy of discussion and is upset that his wife's tea has cooled, during all of the annoying Diana talk. He speaks of homosexuals and zulus and is more cartoon than consort.

Though Philip has no patience for them (leaving the marital bed that they are humorously sharing, when she won't turn off the tv, Elizabeth can't tear herself away from the media reports. The people weeping on the streets tell reporters that the royals misjudged them. They made a terrible mistake. They abused Diana both in life and in death and they have blood on their hands. Elizabeth can take no more and decides that they're going back to Buckingham Palace. Philip is surprised and chagrined, but it will give him a chance to find a new stag for the boys to hunt, since the other 14-pointer was killed. What! When? A hunter on neighboring property shot the stag.

Telling no one, Elizabeth goes to see the great deer. He's strung up in a slaugther room, hanging from his haunches. His head has been cut off, so that the antlers can be mounted on someone's wall. So noble in life, now an ornament. A trophy. Death the great equalizer, but life levels us too. The deer, meant to be a treat for the princes, was felled by an outsider, a guest on someone else's property took this undeserved prize for his own. It wasn't even a clean shot. The stag was wounded first, before he was killed. Elizabeth hopes he didn't suffer.

Back in England, Blair was frustrated by the Queen, but now his own staff is more taxing. His approval rating is up, but he finds no cause to rejoice. When Cherie wonders what is wrong, he says that he's growing tired of having the royals bullied. With an eyeroll, Cherie comments that he's falling in love with the Queen. Why is it that all the prime ministers do? As his assistant gloats that Blair's office has made all the right moves, while the monarchy continues to falter, Blair finally has had enough. Stamping out of the room, he rails that Elizabeth is being skewered because of the death of a woman who only threw everything the queen had ever done for her back in the queen's face and spent the last years of her life on a 24/7 crusade to ruin the "establishment" that the Queen had spent her whole life building.

I applaud Blair's outbust as the highlight of the movie, but it seemed to come from nowhere. Other than the queen's advisor reminding him of King Albert's early death, I'm not sure what has happened to turn Blair's allegiance to the queen. Maybe he was never against her, but he hadn't been against Diana either. From whence did his anger towards the deceased suddenly spring? Based on memory, I agree with his assessment of Lady Spencer, but aside from some unsubstantiated complaints about her manipulations from Charles, nothing in the movie has laid the foundation for Blair's words. Diana was a great humanitarian. She was known for great kindness to her schoolchildren, long before she became princess. But the power of celebrity made her petulant and calculating, giving her leverage over her in-laws that their 1500 years of lineage could not match. Of course, she was pushed into the public spotlight so early that she never had the chance or freedom to grow into a healthy, balanced adult. Maybe time would have changed that. That's a story for another movie. This one doesn't explain to us why Tony Blair saw her as he did. If it was an opinion that evolved, it did so offscreen. If it's one that he harbored all along, why didn't they let us know about it earlier, during one of his private exchanges with Cherie?

We don't see Blair and The Queen together except in the movie's opening and closing scenes. The bond they develop is strong, but distant, based on respect and understanding, rather than intimacy, so the script keeps them apart for symbolic reasons. But if we aren't going to watch that man interact with her, show his royal metamorphosis through other means. Give the guy his own stag!

Tony's sitting around his office feeling embittered when suddenly he looks up and sees the Queen on tv. She's back at Buckingham Palace, looking at the flowers people have left for Diana. She's had a pile of them brought inside the gates, so she can see them herself. She's even talking to those who have gathered outside. Reading their cards, with Charles, Philip, Harry and William beside her. The flag is being lowered too. She's doing everything that Blair asked.

But this is not all about appearances. When the Queen actually reads the accusations against her family in some of the sympathy cards left for Diana she is taken aback, but resigned. A little girl has flowers and the queen offers to put them on the pile with the others, but the girl withdraws her hand. The queen is stung, but not surprised. Not anymore. This is what she has come to expect from her subjects over the last harrowing days. But then the girl explains, these flowers are for the Queen, not for Diana. Elizabeth takes them with a rush of graditude. And more.

There was one poignant moment in real life that is not captured on film, when Diana's casket passed the palace. Would they or wouldn't they? The world waited with bated breath and, yes, the Queen, her mother, sister and daughter bowed their heads in respect. That was the subject of much comment at the time, but not included here.

As she prepares a public speech about Diana, she sends a draft over to Blair's office. They mock it's removed tone. When Blair calls to offer revisions which will make the Queen's message warmer, Elizabeth writes them in without hesitation. Where once she resisted and resented his suggestions, now she follows them without pause. But is it a sign of trust or defeat?

At the funeral, Charles Spencer gives an arrogant eulogy that I despised then as I do now. I would think that his sister's funeral would not be the place to air such hostilities, but his vindictiveness is cheered by many and would probably have been sanctioned by Diana. He says that it was a blessing that his sister was taken while she was still beautiful and radiant. I suppose if she'd lived a long life and gained wisdom, along with wrinkles that would have been the real tragedy. Better dead than ugly. Maybe that's the motto Frances Shand Kydd handed down to her brood.

The funeral ends, the summer commences and as fall comes, Blair arrives at Buckingham Palace to visit the queen once more. At first they speak of her recent travels, the admiration she's won for her diplomacy overseas. But then small talk can no longer cover the elephant in the room. He praises her handling of the funeral and says he was impressed by her humility. Oh no, he is confusing humility with humiliation, she counters. He denies it. Did 1 in 4 people really want her gone she asks with quiet wonder. For that week he says. That was one week and she's reigned for 2500. Those few days won't be remembered when her legacy as a whole is considered. And, of course, he's right.

The awkward moment passes as she invites him for a walk on the grounds. They put Diana behind them and discuss matters of state. She's the one who's supposed to be advising him, not the other way around, the Queen teases.

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