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

The Queen: "upstairs" w/o "downstairs" · 23 October 06

Dear Harriet,

Early this month I sent you Miss Schuster-Slatt’s review of Stephen Frears’s The Queen (screenplay Peter Morgan, starring Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair), with some commentary on Helen Mirren’s career and an eye-attracting photo of her.

Late yesterday afternoon Caroline and I went to see said film. We both enjoyed it; throughout we were aware that it was strongly pro-Royalist and attempting to make the audience sympathize with Elizabeth and see Tony Blair as well as Charles as sentimental heroes. Blair (Michael Sheen) was contrasted with Cherie (Helen McCrory): Blair was the caring new Prime Minister, ever so earnest and decent with his desire to "modernize," the man who has the courage to tell the queen she is out of touch with "her" people and must herself show and validate their grief and allow them to participate in the funeral, come to Buckingham Palace, walk among them; Cherie was a petty woman who couldn’t get herself to curtsey properly. Elizabeth (Mirren) is big enough to overlook such vanities. We see nothing of what bitterness Charles (Alex Jennings) may have felt, nothing of his personal (if he had this) sense of self-blame or guilt for this young woman self-destructing. Had he not married her (picked her to be numinous) she might be alive today. The character as presented is ever intent on getting his mother to "modernize" the monarchy and simply on the surface grief-striken, especially for his "sons." What a great mother Diana had been you see; always loved them. Alex Jennings was the one actor who did not seem uncannily physically like the real people we see in media. He walked like Charles and from the back looked like him; but his facial features are very different. No one played Diana. We just saw her on film. Is there some tabooed matter here for both of them, something to be avoided?

I felt the film was not aimed at me, but at someone who really had gone in for the nonsense (as I see it) that Diana Spenser was a "people’s princess," someone who stood for the powerless and vulnerable, a victim of an establishment, and achieved something lasting for such people (she did help make more public the use of landmines in war). Indeed the film surreptitiously provided evidence to the contrary: the stills of Diana showed a sly calculating look in her eye; she looked overtly sexy, and at one point we watch the Queen (Helen Mirren) watch an apparently notorious interview Diana gave on TV where she presented herself as hounded by the Royal family, in a marriage that had three people (it had many more than that if you count her lovers), and generally showed her own ability to manipulate media audiences and docile (or careful) interviewers.

It reminded me of the TV series of the 1960s, "Upstairs downstairs," only all we saw of the downstairs beyond the aparently well-treated and contented servants at Balmoral were the crowds in the streets who were certainly not rational. "Modernize" in the film seemed to mean the powerful were to validate the "people’s" feelings. Blair (Sheen) does mention "stirring" up "things" and changing positions in government, but he himself keeps by his side a speech-writer who is patently intent on nothing but how Blair appears in media and how powerful Blair can be through media appeal. So "modernizing" does not seem to be such a good thing even if Charles (Jennings) so earnestly wants his mother (Mirren) to yield.

At IMDB, the user comments are summed up as "Long live Helen Mirren." That’s about it. The film is effective, and what makes it so is her remarkable performance. Elizabeth II is an iconic figure and (as she belongs to the same subset of the gene pool that Elizabeth does), she had only to wear the familiar visibilia to evoke her physically (e.g., handbag, pearl necklace, old-fashioned hairdo). She was photographed to look heavier than usual, and she stomped about in boots with a kerchief on her head very sturdily. Mirren used those ugly eye-glasses to great effect. She kept taking them on and off; I’ve seen women actresses use cigarettes superlatively too. For me the glasses made me sympathize with the woman who uses them as barrier and aid to perceive the world around her. But she did much more.

She carried the film; steely, guarded, believable in her sense of her specialness and intense pride, quiet anger and apparent disdain for what Diana Spenser had been or done (she never responds to accusations she "hated" her daughter-in-law), ever enacting a self-posession that breaks down only when she is alone and her jeep breaks down on the Balmoral estate and she spies a stag who is about to be killed. She tries to save it, but it is shot by a commercial tourist who does the job badly. She identifies with that stag. A viewer could also identify the stag with Diana.

Neither the film’s script nor Mirren’s performance ever denied that this is a woman who has lived a privileged life; at the same time we are to feel she has spent much of her life controlling herself and enacting the part she has been paid to do, and that has cost her a great deal.

One the small delights of the film were the slightly caricatured performances of James Cromwell as Philip and Sylvia Syms as the Queen Mother. I kept hoping Syms would be more sardonic than she actually is, but no. Very troubled at one point, Mirren goes to HM’s room for comfort, knocking on the door: "Mummy?" Syms looks potentially subversive throughout though. Her hat was awry, and she got in a wry remark here and there. Syms’s career goes back to the 1950s when she was in the Carry On and other iconoclastic films. Jim tells me she was a sarky female counterpart to angry young men.

The quality of the film that’s significant is how it seems (like George Clooney’s Syriana) to be a living political statement today, one which is aware that its meaning will be different depending on what point of not just a political spectrum but personal identification the viewer has made. I feel Jim sympathizes with Charles and the idea that quiet dignity, forbearance, and courtesy to one another are standards we should try to adhere to to help ourselves and others to endure life. As I wrote when Charles married Mrs Camilla Parker-Bowles, while Camilla is just as much a figure from a privileged powerful establishment, I felt for her a sneaking sympathy as the underdog, the marginalized in the original situation and was glad to see she was rewarded with respect and got to wear her beautiful hats in public at last. Caroline seemed to enjoy the satire in the film most—there was much of each of the figures in continual small ways.

The meaning is in the picture, the still says David Lean. Well this one used the camera to look out at the vast Scottish landscape the Queen owns. It showed the royal family’s very comfortable home life. And it blent in footage from the TV and other shows at the time.

Perhaps one of the most powerful moments was the recreation of the scene when Diana Spencer and her fabulously wealthy companion for the night exited the luxurious palace-building they had been spending the evening in, and we saw them suddenly surrounded by uncountable motorcycles making huge noise, on which were sat photographers with large cameras. The car speeds away with these ruthless horrors in pursuit. Yes this woman paid a high price for the poisonous flower, fame. We hear in an overvoice Mirren say the photographers killed her.

The contrast is the solitude Mirren has in her old jeep (Jim says that wealthy people in England can keep old cars on their estate which won’t pass inspection outside) as she rides on her estate. She goes to London and listens to Blair to protect her place, the respect she gets from everyone as she maintains her control over her private space and everyone walks beside her with her controlling whatever the momentary encounter might be.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. From Trollope-l:

    "Loved the blog about The Queen, Ellen, and am anxious to see the film.

    Did you see The Last King of Scotland? I found that to be a remarkable film with Forest Whitaker.

    Sylvia    Oct 23, 3:48pm    #
  2. From Janeites: A poem inspired by the birthday of a member and the film:

    "A Nonsense Poem

    Eighty is for the Queen
    As well as for our friend Eugene.

    Now which [let us guess] prefers novels witty and pastoral,
    And which prefers striding about with canines at Balmoral?

    Elissa S."
    Sylvia    Oct 24, 7:04am    #
  3. An intelligent politically aware review of The Queen has appeared in the New York Review of Books. It occupies first place in the issue: Andrew O'Hagan, "King Tony," NYRB, 53:18 (November 16, 2006)


    The author seeks to take seriously, sympathize with, and analyze the mass phenomenon of Diana-hysteria, and also the new values or modes of open expressiveness and turn away from the "old deference" and repression. I think he endows the film with too much insight, but I like how he says there’s something crazy about being able to make a politically aware film out of stilted or archaically-rooted costume drama.

    The ending reminds me of a story Jim once told me. On a cold dank day in fall when the rain poured down, he and all his fellow schoolmates (all boys, probably ages 12-15) in a public school were forced out of their building and made to stand at alert attention as a group of limousines sped by. In them were the Queen and Prime Minister. No one from inside bothered to wave.

    The editor also chooses to reprint a still of Mirren with her glasses on reading about Diana’s death.

    Sylvia    Oct 31, 1:11pm    #
  4. From Miss Schuster-Slatt (aka Diana):

    "Thank you for posting that fine review of The Queen, Ellen, which I would not otherwise have seen.

    You write:

    ‘I think he endows the film with too much insight, but I like
    how he says there’s something crazy about being able to make a politically aware film out of a costume drama, archaically-stilted film.’

    I think the insight is, in fact, there. The film does make you reflect on all those issues mentioned in the review, and it is intentional – perhaps part of the art is that you may not realize it. If Stephen Frears wanted to use his films to evilly manipulate, which he doesn’t, my money would be on him succeeding.

    I’ve loved the guy since My Beautiful Laundrette and Prick Up Your Ears, which was one of my favorite films ever, though I don’t know how it will have weathered. The guy is a brilliant, great filmmaker, ultra smart.

    Some of the things we are invited to reflect upon are: Tony Blair then and now. Oprah-ism. Warring views on monarchy. The film reveals the one moment in the Queen’s 50-year reign when she had to actually publicly "do" something she did not want to do – or the public would have thought she was not what they needed her to be. It’s an astonishing moment, and the movie showcases it very cannily indeed. As I say, there’s a lot going on in a Stephen Frears film, it’s thoughtful and adept, indicating what’s going on under the surface of things, without hitting you blatantly over the head with it. But not only the film – additionally, I found the review itself extremely good:

    ‘Meanwhile, Elizabeth Windsor knows her stuff. She knows that love is not love, which alters where it alteration finds, but she has the good royal instinct not to test the people’s love, so constancy is her muse, her plan, and her religion.’

    That’s good writing, that is. (Even if some of it is Shakespeare.) I’ll recognize Andrew O’Hagan’s byline now.

    chava    Oct 31, 11:37pm    #

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