Monarchist, Monarchist, Where Have You Been?
And not for the first time nor yet the last, do I rejoice that I live in a republic.
I am, however, endlessly enthralled by the soap opera that is the House of Windsor. So I went to see this much-hailed flick. And, I tell you, it is ROYAL. Man, that Helen Mirren…first time I saw her was either in John Boorman’s loopy “Excalibur”, as Morgana, or as Titania in the BBC Shakespeare Plays’ “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And she was fantastic in both of them.
Down the years I’ve watched Dame Helen in tons of TV and movie stuff, and she has always been amazing. But this…THIS is extraordinary. She looks so much like Liz it’s positively spooky, and it’s not just the tight-ass wig and gritted teeth. She’s got that glacial stare down, and also the bovine bewilderment behind it, like ‘However could this happen to little old royal me, that my subjects are hating me so? And how did that blond Spencer bitch get away with it?’
Mirren also nails the mean-lipped petulance: 'I, Elizabeth, who have given all my life and humanity in service to my country, deserve better from them now.' Thing is, Liz doesn't. She chose the terms of her servitude. It could have been otherwise...look at the rulers of Norway, Spain, Sweden, Holland. They're normal people. She's not. To quote Mr. Mojo, she's "caught in a prison of her own devise." She decided to freeze off all her emotions so that her public could perceive her as a queen. They didn't ask her to. All her own sixteenth-century idea. No wonder Diana, with her genuine warmth and liking for people (whatever the rest of her problems may have been, and they were many), scared and angered her mother-in-law so much.
Okay, major spoilers coming up, so if you don’t want to know, stop reading here. (Though we all know how it ends.)
Director Stephen Frears may have cobbled all this up out of fiction, backstairs gossip and wishful thinking—and as you might recall I am on principle bitterly opposed to biopics of living people and recently dead ones (thank YOU, Oliver fucking Stone!)—but I have to say I got totally sucked in.
Michael Sheen, the guy who plays Prime Minister Tony Blair, only a few months installed in Downing Street when the action of all this goes down (September 1997), is equally amazing, and another spot-on lookalike, so much so that when they intercut real-life footage, as Frears often does, it’s sometimes hard to tell the two Blairs apart.
Helen McCrory, as the fiercely antimonarchist Cherie Blair, doesn’t have much to do but try for a bendy, knock-kneed curtsey. See, ’cause she’s OPPOSED to monarchy, so she can’t even bring herself to kneel to it properly. Ridiculous. As a wee lass in parochial school, many years ago, I myself was taught to curtsey. It’s not THAT hard. But she's good.
As the Queen Mother, veteran Sylvia Syms is not as terrific as Mirren and Sheen, nor is James Cromwell (“That’ll do, pig”) as the stick-up-his-bum Prince Philip. Then again, both are fairly thankless roles.
Philip, a prince of Greece by birth (without a drop of actual Greek blood in his German veins), is an arrogant, princely prig who professes to support his wife and is angered when she is dissed (as he perceives it), yet is plainly sick with jealousy of her superior rank (he has to walk three steps behind her in public).
The Queen Mum, or as many called her, “The Lily of the Valium,” is depicted as a sniffling, clueless, autocratic sot. Which is probably pretty accurate, actually. She is famously thought to have cooked up the Charles/Diana mismatch with her lady-in-waiting, Ruth Lady Fermoy, Diana’s grandmother. No doubt she will get her reward in heaven.
Alex Jennings, who plays the hapless Prince Charles, doesn’t look like him, but does nail the voice and the deer-in-headlights expression, and there are some nice portrayals of important palace lackeys.
We don’t see Diana except in news footage, thankfully (and one brief staged shot where she and Dodi are dashing out the Ritz back door to jump in their deathmobile and ride into the ages). Nor do we see Camilla, even more thankfully, or more than a few distant glimpses of Wills and Harry.
The locations and photography are nothing short of spectacular, and several incredibly stately homes are used as stand-ins for Balmoral, the Scottish retreat where the Queen goes to ground like a hunted stoat, trying to make some sense of the tsunamis of grief for Diana that have begun to sweep the world, when all she can see Diana as is an ungrateful little tart who had no respect for the position she married into.
There’s some heavy-handed symbolism about a magnificent stag that Philip and the young princes are stalking…yeah, right, your mum’s just been killed in a horrific car crash, so sure, going out on the moors with your bloodthirsty grandpa for three days straight to try to slaughter an inoffensive and proudly vital stag is a PERFECT way to cope with your grief and loss. No wonder this family is so, as it were, royally fucked up.
That stag is made to bear the weight of a huge crapload of metaphor: it represents Diana, it represents the Queen herself, it represents the way of life that Betty Mountbatten-Windsor feels to be slipping away forever, it represents the freedom she has never known. She even admires, in a lovely little scene where it comes right up near to her, its beauty and wildness and grace, and envies it.
So of course it ends up dead, that beautiful animal does, hanging upside down over a drain, in a little Victorian game larder on a neighboring estate, its blood slowly dripping out from the stump neck where its head with the proud antlers was cut off.
She actually goes to visit it there—it’s really wrong how much the scene of the kerchiefed, Barboured and wellie’d Liz regarding the dead stag's antlered head, all Hamlet with Yorick’s skull, made me laugh.
In the end, though, Blair has some sympathy for his monarch/mother figure, and Queenie seems to be a tad bit more human, or at least more humanly cynical. Cynical enough to warn him that his time for this sort of thing may soon come, and, now, it has.
We know it must be so, of course. The real Queen here is the one who never lived long enough to be crowned.