We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

The Queen thrice over · 4 October 06

My dear Harriet,

Our good friend, Miss Schuster-Slatt has written a review of Stephen Frears’ new film, The Queen, screenplay Peter Morgan, starring Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair. It was published in a local LA newspaper and she has given me permission to send it on to you:

"Director Stephen Frears’ impeccably observed evocation of a pivotal week in English public life doesn’t skewer the monarchy quite as one might expect, nor is it a criticism of the whirlwind of emotionalism that swept Britain after the death of Princess Diana. Rather, the monarchy is devastatingly revealed as outmoded, archaic, absurd—and an integral part of British life.

Dame Helen Mirren as the Queen, in an astonishing performance of hallucinatory regality, is the picture of composure with steely intelligence behind the iconic facade. She’s brilliantly balanced by Michael Sheen as Tony Blair, a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed newly minted Prime Minister with a delicious tincture of oiliness, and a distinguished cast that features James Cromwell as a hilariously oafish Prince Philip, Sylvia Syms as the old-trout Queen Mother, and Alex Jennings playing Prince Charles as a twit to the T. A finely nuanced screenplay by Peter Morgan gets the melding of fact and fiction spot on, aided by skilful weaving of archival footage that echoes the emotion unleashed by an out-of-control populist fever that briefly threatened to shake an

Riveting sequences include the montage leading up to Diana’s death, showing the living, hounded girl; brash modern
Blair and his wife enduring musty palace intricacies; and the Queen Mum’s disdain at having her own funeral plans hijacked. Above all, there’s Mirren’s shrewd, stoical Queen, saying just
what she should in a cut-glass voice, her eyes revealing her complex, conflicted thoughts. She is the film’s true crowning glory."

Talk about crowning glory, Helen Mirren must have a friend at the New Yorker. This week there’s a review by Anthony Lane which manages to praise the film through faint damning ("Battle Royal"). Last week there appeared one of these cooing, purring hyped non-content interviews (by John Lahr) of Mirren: married to an American director since 1984, she’s lived in LA since 1984, in the grandeur of one of these mansions built in the 1920s by one of the then stars who made a career partly of appearing fabulously wealthy (the house is top-out-of-sight as Paul Fussell has it). And it was accompanied by this (for me) very attractive portrait photo of Mirren in wild hair-do, ordinary slightly tough woman’s posture, and regal heart-stopping gown:

Robert Maxwell photo

Wild horses couldn’t keep me away. Mirren has been queen thrice over. Elizabeth the Queen (with Jeremy Irons as her long-suffering poignantly tortured Leicester) is up for an Oscar or some prize. Then long ago she was an unforgettable Morgana in Excalibur.

Jim suggested it was easy for Mirren to play Elizabeth Windsor: the queen is intensely iconic in the way she continually presents herself to the world. Mirren need only get the props, put on the iconography (as wig, handbag, kerchief) and be in the right gene pool. I’m not so sure.

I suggest Mirren’s psychological baggage or type casting works superlatively well against the iconic super-prim presentation of selfhood in E2. I’ve never forgotten Mirren in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover.

Sylvia Drake

Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Thanks for posting the New Yorker review, Ellen. He writes like he is on top of Olympus, doesn’t he – rather pompous, and doesn’t really give much feeling for the energy and wit of the movie. However, you’ll see it for yourself.

    "Miss Schuster-Slatt"
    Diana    Oct 5, 12:04am    #
  2. Quite right, Miss S-S. I also noticed how determined supposedly to flatter Mirren, Lane countered the presentation of her as an aging or old woman with his memories of her "cavorting" naked in some Ken Russell film. Mustn’t have a review which simply accepts an old woman and aging actress as a justifiable heroine.

    Perhaps he is one of those who likes the stance developed by this family since the very late 18th & 19th century. The present queen’s determination to keep her iconic presence unbroken is her way of appealing to the naive desire in people for identification with supposedly numinous people. This is how E2 has kept up what Charles calls "the family business."

    I don't begin to do justice to Mirren's career. Isn't she right now playing a woman detective on British TV in a series soon to appear on US PBS stations? She was one of the actresses interviewed and described in a good book I read on English actresses who do try to change the stereotyping of women (another is Harriet Walters).

    Miss Drake
    Sylvia Drake    Oct 5, 8:17am    #
  3. Fran answered:

    ‘Isn’t she right now playing a woman detective on British TV in a series soon to appear on US PBS stations?

    "Yes, as I think I mentioned in passing earlier, she’s done what she said she wouldn’t do and that’s another Prime Suspect episode (Number 7) as DCS Jane Tennison. I’m not quite sure when it will get to Germany though.

    It’s a series I’ve enjoyed very much on the whole – even when the writing’s not always been at its best, Mirren herself has been great as an ambitious and successful, if not usually well-liked, senior detective constantly hindered in her cases not only by some of her own demons and relationship problems, but more especially by in-house politicking, police sexism and now increasingly ageism.

    I’m not sure if it’s been aired in England yet, but while it’s reported as definitely the last episode as Tennison approaches the retirement the powers-that-be were already trying to force her into in the last version, it’s also said to have been filmed with five alternative endings, so maybe the producers have left themselves a backdoor this time, too.

    The photos and awards definitely show a Mirren still very much at the top of her game, just as she was the one and only time I saw her on stage, which was years ago in Jacobean drama at the Round House Theatre in London. It’s been so long I can’t even remember which particular play it was, but I do remember her bloodcurdling performance. All the theatre lights went out on her shattering death scream and the audience nearly had a collective heart attack in the sudden Stygian darkness:)

    Sylvia    Oct 5, 11:56am    #
  4. Thank you so much Fran.

    The Jacobean plays are powerful and have remarkable female types in them. I didn’t see that play but I did get to read a good review in the TLS about a play Mirren starred in a London a few Xmas seasons ago. She was playing the Clytemnestra role in a Eugene O’Neill play. It might have been Morning Becomes Electra but I’m not sure since a number of O’Neill’s plays have characteres whose type and action is developed allusively through a connection to Greek plays.

    Sometimes I wish I had watchable TV :) (Not that often)

    Sylvia Drake    Oct 5, 12:19pm    #
  5. Fran responded again:

    "’The Jacobean plays are powerful and have remarkable female types in them.’

    Yes, indeed, but also reflective of some very sick and dark times.

    I have the feeling it was Webster’s ‘The White Devil’ I saw her in, but can’t be sure – women tend to get the chop with alarming frequency in Jacobean drama:)

    One of the funniest aspects of the ‘Shakespeare in Love’ film was the running joke with a very young Webster.


    Giving me a chance to remember when I was a graduate student trying to decide whether to write about Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (a Jacobean play in pastoral) or Jacobean drama itself:

    Ah yes on Jacobean plays. I once dreamed of writing a disseration to be called "’Anything for a quiet life:’ Incest and Regicide in Jacobean Drama."

    I came to the quotation by way of Middleton play. In most Jacobean plays characters asked to go and commit a murder, hurry off to do it. Not a problem is their attitude. But in this Middleton play, a Hamlet-like underling seems to have conscience twinges. So the master gets exasperated. There they are in a cellar on a dark street somewhere near a court, and this man is having Doubts. He gets so excited, the man does go off, murders whoever it is, and lugging the body through the streets, says "Anything for a quiet life."

    Anyway he’d have gotten fired.

    Some of this is Elizabethan’s supposed attitude towards Italy as a place of utter violence and corruption.

    Do you know this quotation from Michael Palin’s character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who, trying to smooth tempers over after Sir Lancelot slaughters a wedding party, says: "Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who."

    Are medieval tales any different? Jacobean tragedies and comedies face up to what humanity is. And Shakespeare is the greatest of them in some of his tragedies.

    I taught Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi twice, and once screened for a class a filmed adaptation of Middleton’s The Changeling) with a young and brilliant Bob Hoskins as the very ugly utterly amoral De Flores. He’s a hanger-on servant who murders for others and wants a woman who loathes him; she wants a man murdered her father insists she marry. Well De Flores murders him but now he’s in control of her; they have sex, and it’s a "master/servant" situation where he begins to control her until she rebels. There’s a scene where Hoskins writhes on the floor in anguish that I’ve not forgotten. The whole thing startled my students. It had a young Hugh Grant in it, Grant before he was type-cast as eternally harmlessly apologetic. He’s the rake-type the woman wants to marry. Now De Flores is the type Vittoria Corombona comes to depend on, her brother, Flamineo. There’s nothing beyond Flamineo.

    Women wrote a few. Cary Lady Falkland is the name of someone who wrote a play about Mariamne; Mary Wroth’s gigantic romance, Pamphilia
    to Amphiant (I can’t spell it) has little Jacobean dramas in the narrative.

    So, does Vittoria Corombona ring a bell? Helen Mirren as Vittoria Corombona. It’s much harder than Morgana.

    Sylvia    Oct 5, 11:49pm    #
  6. From Fran:

    "’So, does Vittoria Corombona ring a bell?’

    Wish it did ring more of a bell, but I honestly couldn’t say for sure. I’ve enjoyed reading your presentation of the play, though. Interestingly enough, a quick check revealed that Mirren actually performed at The Roundhouse with Bob Hoskins in a performance of The Duchess of Malfi in 1977. We did go up to town from Oxford to see a play from time to time, but from what I recall, it was more likely to have been 1978/79 when I was working in London and investing most of my newly-earned cash in theatre and concert tickets:)

    Mirren and Hoskins must have acted together quite a bit around that time: they were both great in The Long Good Friday as well (and in the much later Last Orders come to think of it).

    Talking of gangster films, you mentioned Mirren in Greenaway’s weird and wonderful The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover earlier. Another non-Mirren film I like by him is The Draughtsman’s Contract. He’s often been referred to as a Neo-Jacobean himself, and you can see why in both.

    Sylvia    Oct 6, 7:25am    #
  7. News on Water: it has been submitted for foreign language Oscar, the first beneficiary of the Academy no longer requiring each country’s submission to be in a language indiginous to the area. Oddly enough, it’s being submitted by Canada; I’m not entirely sure what Canada had to do with its making…haven’t seen much of any of the other submissions, though several of them will no doubt be in US theaters next year.
    Isobel    Oct 8, 9:20am    #
  8. Glad to hear the news about Water. Canada is a much more liberal place when it comes to religion. Religion is what is used to justify these cruelties.

    Sylvia    Oct 8, 7:35pm    #
  9. To return to Mirren and The Queen, this morning I was at the GMU gym and pool. I now go twice a week in the morning. At the exercise machines you find little TVs and so when I do a treadmill or elliptic I can turn on the TV. I have no earphones so I don’t have to listen to what’s said or the music, just watch images if I want or read the sentences which swirl across the screen for the benefit of someone who is dear; sometimes I do as it passes the time quicker while I exercise (I watch the weather mostly, but sometimes news and discovery, health, a history channel, a GMU channel). (Not that the gym is silent; across the exercise room music streams all the time, a soft sort of rock-and-roll is what most of it is; in the other rooms there is other music, including in the rooms with pools. The young generation doesn’t seem to understand the advantage of sweet silence.)

    Anyway today next to me someone turned on her TV and I saw a film clip of The Queen. It startled me because for a moment the two actors (Mirren and Sheen) really did mimick Elizabeth II and Blair to such perfection I thought it was them. Then there was a retrospective (very brief) of Mirren’s career, beginning with her as Morgana. Very conventional trajectory; she went on from "such roles" (undefined) to making a speciality of "woman trapped." Then we saw her in a couple of films I didn’t recognize and the housekeeper in Gosford Park with Eileen Atkins (who stole that scene at the close where I did weep the first time), and then as "the hard boiled detective" woman. No sign of The Cook or the other films Fran mentioned :). Nor Last Orders for that matter. Doesn’t fit then narrative I suppose.

    So Mirren’s getting the most publicity. It’s a vehicle for her.

    My hunch is the film function as pro-monarchy stuff and those who praise it most are pro-monarchy and if it achieves high popularity in the US it will be from the types who are nostalgic for some England that exists in certain books (1930s) or are fond of monarchy.

    Sylvia    Oct 8, 7:39pm    #
  10. From Joan W:

    "I love to watch films on Elizabeth I. I look at them as a story of a woman who was successful in her job and able to do what few women had done at that time in history—plus some really spectacular costuming. It has nothing to do with liking the monarchy, liking England (as I certainly do) or reading or watching a story about the monarchs. I have the Mirren version here to watch and started it a little earlier but because of time restraints decided to watch tomorrow. But I already know that I won’t like it as well as the others. Mirren has big, working-women hands and she is handling the love scene with Leiscester badly ... Joan"
    Sylvia    Oct 9, 6:51am    #
  11. Dear Joan and all,

    For what it’s worth: I didn’t mean that Elizabeth I films and the icon and stories (which go back a long way) appeal to people who like the monarchy. No more do films and the icon and stories (which go back a long way) of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots who even in this new film of Elizabeth is presented as a rival. These icons have other psychological meanings or baggage. Until the 20th century Elizabeth I was presented unsympathetically as Machiavel, seething thwarted virgin or jealous, as cold and vicious: it was against women who don't marry (who did she think she was?) and also against women with power and use it. Now the icon is still that but presented positively, though in a qualified way. Mirren as Elizabeth I wants to marry Leicester and has an affair with him, but is more loyal to her country which is presented as her family.
    Mary Stuart presented an iconography of victimhood, vicarious thrills of sex and foolish ideas about glamor and power (of which Stuart since she continually gave her body over to men without securing anything for it had none at all). In this film Mary is presented as weak and "whining" (a passive aggressive which is currently a no-no).

    No I meant Elizabeth II who has been seen very differently. The icon comes from later Victorian times and is a bourgeois image of virtue as wife, mother, caring person, continually controlled (which is what women are urged to be, including controlling eating), and the film is about how Mirren-as-Elizabeth learns to be a different popular icon, much more open, sentimental, and more like the blessed Diana, again for the sake of her country and family (as in the Eliz I film with Mirren). Isn’t that swell?

    I've seen a lot of evidence of what I suggested on Piffle where the movie has been discussed, e.g., "According to ads in in one of this week's US magazines (can't lay my hands on it, of course!), it will be opening in the next week or two in the big cities. I don't know if it will reach Quebec City (too monarchist and too "English", I suspect! I will have to wait for DVD release. Boo hoo. ... monarchist and Helen Mirren fan", to which someone else said of the header, The Queen: "Everytime I see that Subject line I have the urge to stand up and drink."

    On her hands, yes, some people inherit larger heavier hands, and she has them. I notice these things too, but lots of people seem not to.


    Jeremy Irons played Leicester as tall, thin, tortured, anguished, the anti-macho taken to an extreme as utterly subject male. I didn't think it worked.
    Sylvia    Oct 9, 6:59am    #
  12. From Fran:

    "It sounds a bit as if they are trying to canonize Mirren:)

    I suppose some of her later projects have been more conventional and that’salso probably why she is finally getting the kudos she’s deserved for a long time, but one of the most attractive things about her career has been the willingness to leave the well-trodden path and take risks, as she did in Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah, Greenaway’s film or when she went scooting off to Africa to experience tribal culture and do experimental theatre with Peter Brooke. Even the crime film The Long Good Friday shows a very different aspect of the Northern Ireland situation that I imagine might have been physically dangerous to do at the time, not to mention the later Some Mother’s Son with that very fine Irish actress, Fionnula Flanagan.

    Some things might not seem the wisest choice in retrospect (the extremely violent, camp and scandalous trash film Caligola comes most to mind here) but she’s was always game to go and do things that definitely wouldn’t have amused the Queen :)

    Sylvia    Oct 9, 7:50am    #
  13. Diana B, Miss Schuster-Slatt wrote:

    Ellen says "My hunch is the film function as pro-monarchy stuff and those who praise it most are pro-monarchy and if it achieves high popularity in the US it will be from the types who are nostalgic for some England that exists in certain books (1930s) or are fond of monarchy."

    Ellen, it’s a film by Stephen Frears! Not the Merchant Ivory Industry. Better wait till you see it, reserve judgement. Elizabeth doesn’t learn to be sentimental and "like Diana" in the least – I think you’ll see she stays entirely herself."

    I hope so. I would need to see it a second time (and it was so long), but I thought Mirren’s Elizabeth II has a subtext or counter-text which undermined the "patriotic" and conventional female enactments of the film.

    Sylvia    Oct 10, 8:53am    #

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