This is the time when all the critics give their choices for the best films of the year. When I started this blog, I looked forward to doing that at the end of this year, but then I received my assignments in regard to St. Elizabeth, which took up almost all my spare time, so I have seen very few movies since March.
On the other hand, unlike most critics, who are basically required to see everything, no matter how stupid the concept, I usually choose movies that I think will be works of quality. So I usually end up seeing a number of films thought be be among the year’s best. I’m catching up a bit now, at the year’s end, when I don’t have any immediate deadlines. I had wanted to save Dreamgirls as a treat for the holidays, but it hasn’t yet come to Iowa, where I’m spending Christmas with my family. So it will have to wait until I get back to New York. Too many films to see, too little time.
All the same, I find that many critics are giving their highest praise to a film that I also found to be the best of the year. So I’ll review it here as my top pick (at least so far) of 2006. Later, before awards season heats up, I’ll talk about some other films and performances.
I had never thought very much about the life of Queen Elizabeth II (just as I’m sure she’s never thought very much about mine). Nor did I think that the subject matter of The Queen, directed by Stephen Frears, sounded very promising. After all there have been so many tasteless tabloid treatments of Princess Diana’s death, and so many equally bad TV movies about the royal family. But it turned out to be an enormously entertaining as well as riveting drama, and contained the outstanding lead performance by a woman this year, Helen Mirren. There seems to be little doubt that she’s the Oscar front runner for Best Actress. The film is likely to get a Best Picture spot as well.
The story is about the personal reaction of the Queen to the hoopla surrounding Princess Diana’s death in 1997, and the reaction of the nation and the world to the royal family’s reaction. It deals with the “spin” put on the situation on all sides. But it is also a thoughtful treatment not of politics as such, but of leadership. Or if you will, rulership. Yes, there’s a difference, and not one too often thought about it just this way.
C. S. Lewis wrote: “Of a ruler one asks justice, incorruption, diligence and perhaps clemency; of a leader, dash, initiative, and (I suppose) what people call ‘magnetism’ or ‘personality.” (“De Descriptione Temporum,” in Selected Literary Essays). He indicated that this political change came about between between the nineteenth century and now. Lewis wrote before the real dawn of the TV age, but I can see its effects very clearly in public life today, and although Lewis probably identified the older “rulership” solely with monarchy, and the “leadership” with democratic governments like the U.S., I think the tendency occurs in all forms of government.
Today, TV, media and the internet have made image the most important, sometimes seemingly the only important aspect of a public figure. “Spin” is king. Leaders play on the emotions of people to rally them to a cause. The trouble is, the same emotional manipulation that can lead to good can also lead to evil. Leaders can induce us through emotions to support a bad cause — or they can “feel our pain” in public and get away with who knows what in private. (Put whatever recent politicians you want in those slots).
The Queen is about an old-fashioned ruler who refused to “spin” her image to suit the needs of the moment. Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth does cultivate an image, but not one of her own making. She has been required to act like a queen since her birth. Mirren herself has commented that while preparing for the part she decided that the best way to get to know what the queen was really like was to study her as a little girl before she became a public figure — only to find that she had melded with the insitutution at such an early age that there was no separating the two. For more than fifty years she has been the soul of her nation’s sense of duty. Her image is one of majesty, of propriety. She is very good at it: in the film’s first few moments, she uses the weight of her office to turn her brash young Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), into a nervous schoolboy in her presence.
In contrast, Diana was someone who initially managed to attract public interest by being herself — “Shy Di” — and came to be able to use that interest to bring people’s attention to the causes that she loved. She received the type of public adulation that Elizabeth never had because she offered people what they wanted, rather than what the needed. She was a modern leader. A little of her seemed to rub off on the institution of the monarchy, now seen as old-fashioned. And then suddenly, Diana was gone.
Blair, a savvy, shirt-sleeved modern politician, who has just been swept into office on the Labor party landslide that ousted Margaret Thatcher, quickly understands what’s at stake when he learns of Diana’s death. With the help of his speechwriter, he turns out the proper statement of grief. He quails a bit at the suggested line “the people’s princess,” but uses it. The queen, on the other hand, refuses to participate in the emotional carnival surrounding Diana’s death. When the Prime Minister suggests she might want to make a public expression to let the people know she shares their grief, Elizabeth gasps in disbelief “Their grief?” For her, mourning was a private affair. Deep down, she may have been stubbornly refusing to admit to something she didn’t really feel — it is commonly thought that she and Diana never got along. Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), almost alone of the family, understands the need to give something of a show for the public, as he goes to Paris to claim Diana’s body. Prince Philip (James Cromwell) fumes uselessly and suggests getting away to Balmoral, the family’s estate in the Scottish Highlands. There they go, to try to come to grips with the situation, mourn privately, and protect Diana’s sons. This attitude sends a whole nation into an uproar when the queen refuses to to respond in the way people now expect. Blair knows that the queen is endangering the monarchy — now he has to convince her of that.
The great strengh of Mirren’s performance lies in her ability to portray the inner struggle of a woman who lets on to very little of what’s she’s thinking, either publicly or within her family. She has one truly luminous private moment watching a beautiful stag in the Highlands that tells us a great deal. But mostly she goes quiety about her routine. At one point, she and her family go on a picnic out on the moor, and she sets the table in old sweater and kerchief like any grandma — I believe I even caught a glimpse of Tupperware. (The Highland scenery is truly gorgeous, by the way). Or she watches Diana’s image on television, endlessly, as though searching for something. Perhaps she is searching for what she really does feel.
Michael Sheen is equally good as a modern politician trying to come to grips with the ancient institution of the monarchy and juggle the needs of popular sentiment with his reverence for the devotion to duty beyond private feelings that has has enabled the Queen to bear her office for so many years. At the same time he’s dealing with his wife Cheri (wonderfully played by Helen Mcrory) who things the monarchy is a completely outmoded institution, and doesn’t hesitate to say so. In fact, there is a great deal of wit in the film and frequent audience laughter for the most trenchant lines.
Throughout, the script (by Peter Morgan) and Frears’ direction, never really takes sides between rulership and leadership. Blair and the Queen, though, do somehow find their own common ground, and that makes the film’s final moments especially moving.
It might be argued that United 93 (my runner-up for best film), in bringing some emotional catharsis over the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the heroism of that day, is somehow more important than another rehash of the lives of the British royal family. But I think The Queen said some of the most important things said on film this year, things that politicians and public should all ponder.