The Fine Art of Reigning By Kata Anna Váró
in 63rd Venice International Film Festival
Costume dramas have always been the popular and well-marketable strongholds of British cinema. Alexander Korda’s Henry VIII proved as early as in 1933 that the stories of historical figures, especially from the ruling classes, dressed in lavish period costumes can draw audiences into the cinema in large numbers and not only in the UK, but also in the much desired US. These period pieces have gained considerable recognition overseas, where the stories about the British sovereigns and the upper classes with their long-lived traditions and values have always interested the American audiences. The popularity of these films owes much to the ever present self-irony and the ‘typical English humour’ and also to the actors trained in the finest drama schools and equipped with a great deal of theatrical experience. No wonder that every now and then some major costume drama comes out of British cinema, especially in the periods of scarcity, to revive or reinforce the position of Britain in the movie making business.
The nostalgic looking back to the past creates a historical distance, which undoubtedly paints the events and the characters in a more favourable colour. These films guide the audiences back to an era, which sets a sharp contrast with the decaying moral values of the present, and makes thousands of viewers long for the ‘good old days’. What Stephen Frears does with his latest film, The Queen , however, is rather unprecedented in British filmmaking. He (and his collaborators, producer Andy Harries and scriptwriter Peter Morgan) endeavour to create a period piece about a person who is still alive and happens to be no less than Her Majesty, Elizabeth II, the Ruling Queen of Great Britain . If this does not sound daring enough, the film chooses to talk about the death of Princess Diana and the Royal Family’s reaction to her tragedy, which is still one of the most delicate subject matters to date. It might sound like bungee jumping without a rope and would certainly qualify as a suicide attempt in the hands of a less capable team.
Here, scriptwriter Peter Morgan creates a delicate balance between humour and respect, though both Elizabeth and her family and the Blair’s get their share of both. His irony never turns into an open assault but remains evenly handed and tasteful. The death of Princess Diana was not only a major historical event but also proved to be a turning point in the public’s perception of the Queen and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. The film recollects the events with the help of archive footage of newsreels and newspaper headlines and mixes them with fictitious dialogues that might have taken place during that mournful week. The biggest achievement is that Morgan implants finely tuned punch lines and wonderful verbal humour into the dialogues dancing around such a sorrowful event, without hurting the memories of the belated Princess of Wales or offending either the Royal Family or Mr. Blair. He achieves that by making fun of the protocols and hereditary rituals of the Monarchy and the reformist thinking of the Prime Minister and his wife and not of the actual characters themselves. It is the institutions that are ridiculed and not its representatives. It is more of the ceremonial family breakfast served in a richly ornamented dining-room of the Royals versus the casual kitchen of the Blair’s, full of children’s drawings. It is the bows and formal greetings versus using first names, and the stiff upper lip versus sharing feelings and concerns with the family or the public. Both sides are equally caricatured but neither of them is judged to be altogether right or wrong. The centuries’ long customs and the modernist approaches are equally treated with irony and understanding, thus communicating a message that they both have their places in society. The Monarchy is an essential part of the British society with all its ceremonies and embedded formality but showing a bit of flexibility is inevitable for maintaining a good public image and silencing those who want to abolish it for good.
The film owes a great deal to its superb cast, demonstrating that British actors are clearly not of the ‘flavour of the month’ kind. Helen Mirren’s performance is a real master class on finely tuned acting using small gestures and refined facial expressions. She has an amazing ability to hint at a whole range of emotions and to suppress them with the tightening of her lips before they actually overcome her. Mirren conveys that a great inner battle hides behind conventions of politeness and reserve. She portrays a mother and a grandmother who is torn between her upbringing to be a queen and her inherent care for her beloved ones. This duality becomes more and more accentuated during the course of the film and culminates in a televised speech, where she overcomes her own personal doubts and delivers a statement to commemorate the woman, who caused so much headache for her and who also happens to be the mother of two of her grandchildren.
The Queen depicts a dark period of the Monarchy, which encourages them, and especially Queen Elizabeth, to reconsider their values and beliefs. It presented the family with a major crisis and taught them to show compassion and care without losing dignity. It is also a tough inauguration, or rather a plunge into the deep, for Tony Blair, whose approach to the events won the public’s appreciation and immense popularity and who uses this popularity to save the Queen and Royal Family’s public perception.
Stephen Frear’s movie shows great respect and affection for its subjects representing them with a great deal of irony without actually ridiculing them. He quite clearly dances on thin ice but with such a well-written script, paired with a magnificent cast, he manages to avoid disaster. Frears accompanies the above mentioned elements with a more traditional kind of filmmaking, typical of the costume dramas and heritage films of the 1980’s and 90’s. Instead of using flashy camera moves and editing he focuses on capturing the small but ever telling gestures of the characters in spectacular sets, again so typical of the genre.