The Reeler


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NYC Film Festivals

NYFF: The Queen

The New York Film Festival opens tonight with The Queen, director Stephen Frears's cheeky, devastating glimpse into the British royal family's tribulations in the week following Princess Diana's death in 1997. What Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan begin as a carefully cut satire evolves into the Shakesperean calculus of political and personal upheaval, with Helen Mirren's Queen Elizabeth II seemingly facing a new crisis everywhere she turns. Weighing the populist demands of newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) versus the standards and prejudices of her stodgy husband Prince Philip (James Cromwell) and the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms), the Queen must reconsider not only her role in Britain's present, but also her relevance to its future.

Queen for a day: Frears and Mirren at the NYFF press conference for The Queen (Photo: STV)

While Frears and Morgan's exploration of these dynamics relies perhaps a bit too much on a rote cycle of Blair-Elizabeth phone call/archival footage/existential set piece, Mirren's work is so balanced, so engaged and so unbelievably smart that The Queen sustains its greatness simply by the sheer contagion of her tragedy. I would say she makes you cry without even trying to do so, but there is nothing remotely resembling effortlessness in work this astounding.

Which got me thinking: How in the world did Mirren and the filmmakers manufacture such sympathy for this woman?

"If you're British, the royal family is very, very complicated," Frears told The Reeler during The Queen's NYFF press conference. "They are laughed at non-stop, and they are, in many respects, quite ridiculous. On the other hand, you can't make a film from any position other than sympathy for or curiosity about the sort of human beings who are underneath it all. Just to make fun of them--that's what most people do. The extraordinary thing about this film is that it takes them seriously. That already is sort of a shockingly original thing to have done. So in the end, I don't know where you draw the line, because I like the jokes just as much as anybody else does, so the jokes are always the tricky point because they're so irresistible, but they inexorably force you down a caricaturish path. You kind of have to start being on the side of the characters, don't you? All of the characters."

"Michael Sheen, who plays Tony Blair, describes exactly the same thing," Mirren added. "As an actor, you inevitably fall in love with your character, no matter who it is. Even if it's Macbeth, you find reasons to love them the way we find reasons to love ourselves. That was certainly what happened with The Queen. I found myself actually loving loving the Queen." Mirren sat up and restrained a laugh. "It was embarrassing for me to do that. It's not very cool."

"No, it's a disgrace," Frears joked.

"As an American, my sympathies were originally with Diana," said Cromwell, whose Prince Philip, not coincidentally, is the most cartoonish royal depicted in the film. "My experience with her--as with most people in the world--was from a distance through the press. That's how I experienced her--not personally. What I noticed happened in the film was that I realized the family knew her in a way that almost nobody else did. Whatever her transgressions were in terms of that family, they felt them deeply, and it justified the behavior they manifested. So you have this sort of push-pull. I sympathize with their dilemma, but at the same time, my observation is of an incredibly dysfunctional family that has caused immeasurable harm to the children, abnd I think as an American, I suppose the Brits feel the same way. I think that it's a shame and a waste, and I'm sorry it had to contribute somewhat to her demise."

Posted at September 29, 2006 12:00 PM

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