Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Queen

In every story with a beautiful princess there is almost always an evil queen of some sort or another, poisoning apples, filling shoes with hot coals, imprisoning innocent maids in towers, and generally making it difficult for any good princess to realize her full potential. What occurred to me as I watched The Queen is that in the heart of every queen is a princess defending her castle. Wicked is in the eye of the beholder.

Directed by Stephen Frears from a script by Peter Morgan, The Queen takes a peek into the life of Queen Elizabeth II during an abnormally interesting week in August 1997, the week that her former daughter-in-law Diana was killed in a car accident. Adding a fascinating counterweight to the story is the character of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) who had literally just been elected the new Prime Minister in a sweeping victory for the Labor party, signaling the death knell of Thatcher-ite Britain.

The monarchical crisis triggered by Diana’s death was not necessarily obvious to those of us who observed the tragedy from a distance. But, as The Queen neatly shows, there was great outrage among British citizens at the House of Windsor’s refusal to comment or make any public display regarding Diana’s death. The fascinating thing about the story related in The Queen is that with which Elizabeth and the royals struggle - the difference between public duty and private life - is the very thing that brought them such problems with Diana in the first place.

The silence from the royal family in the wake of Diana’s death, the royal dignified distance from something for which there was no ‘official’ royal obligation, seemed to a mourning public an echo of the cruel treatment which drove Diana out of the family to begin with. As The Queen makes clear, it was not cruelty as much as a complete failure of royal standards and protocol in dealing with an unprecedented tragedy.

Tony Blair and his staff serve as the audience’s eyes and ears, watching dumbfounded as the royals make one stumble after another. The Queen insists there will be no public funeral. She is squeamish when Charles suggests he take the royal jet to Paris to retrieve Diana’s body. This is just the sort of waste the public is always bashing them for, she quails. After a bitterly acrimonious divorce, the queen observes matter-of-factly that Diana is no longer a part of the royal family. Officially, her death is not a state matter. Interestingly, since her death, the official position has changed to state that, as the mother of the future King of England, Diana always will be a member of the royal family. Unfortunately they hadn’t revised that section of the rule book upon her death.

Slowly the pressure of Tony Blair, and of the public response, forces Queen Elizabeth’s hand. Helen Mirren is amazing as Queen Elizabeth. You can see clearly on her face what the loss of every battle costs her. Acquiescing to a public funeral, to flying the royal standard at half mast, these are more than just niceties she’s agreeing to. You can see her agony at, in her mind, dismantling thousands of years of British tradition.

So much of the story is conveyed by Mirren’s facial expressions. The Queen is not one for superfluous chatter, but on her face we see everything. We see the grim determination to weather yet one more crisis triggered by this woman. We see the worried grandmother desperately trying to shelter her grandchildren from grief. We see the bafflement at the public’s outsized response. We see the guilt of a woman who allowed this hurricane of a woman into her family in the first place.

One of the charming things about Lady Diana Spencer, when she was plucked from noble obscurity, was that she too seemed to be overwhelmed by this fairy tale. She obviously believed it. She believed that she had found her Prince Charming. A shy, lonely child of divorced parents was suddenly a princess.

Of course, she had found nothing, but rather had been found. She had been vetted, selected, and placed in the path of Prince Charles. In this quiet young schoolteacher, the powers that be believed they’d found the perfect bride to bear Charles his heir and a spare. She obviously doted on children, and was photogenic enough that she could be trotted out for ribbon cuttings a few times a year. What nobody warned her was that Charles was never actually her prince. He was Britain’s prince. While she would certainly belong to them, he would never actually belong to her.

What they didn’t count on was that Diana would become the very antithesis of what it means to be a royal. She became a celebrity. And whether she courted it at the beginning or was overwhelmed by it, she became a master at wielding it when she discovered the royal bait and switch. At one point Prince Charles, played with just the right combination of dignity, intelligence, and spinelessness by Alex Jennings, says about his parents, “Now they can see what it’s like. They never understood there’s a difference between the private Diana we know and the public Diana the world loves.”

To most Americans the concept of the British stiff upper lip is the plot of a Monty Python skit. It’s one of those things about Brits, like their penchant for boiling vegetables, which is good for a few laughs. What The Queen makes clear is that to the royal family, “quiet British dignity” is the very core of their identity. The British monarchy survived for thousands of years when others fell. They achieved this not by being photographed on gilded yachts or building Versailles-like palaces, but by establishing themselves a useful role in government and public life. For hundreds of years this stiff upper lip served them well. It was, as the Queen says “what the rest of the world admires us for”.

The movie shows, and it is often argued, that it was Elizabeth’s experiences in World War II which inform her staid, no nonsense, emotionless mien. But I wonder if perhaps more significant, at least in terms of understanding the royal response to Diana, was good old Uncle Edward, aka King Edward VIII. Edward, whose reign lasted less than a year, abdicated the throne in order to marry his true love, Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee.

From an outsider’s point of view, this was perhaps a terribly romantic story. From the point of view of a young girl, however, it was a mortifying family crisis. Her uncle chose to abdicate the job for which he had been prepared and schooled all his life in order to be with a woman who could not be less suitable. Without concern for his country, limping towards another war with Germany, he skipped off to the continent to summer in Biarritz with Nazi bankers. Without concern for his family, he passed the burden of kingship onto his younger brother, and then Edward and Wallis tormented the family for years over issues having to do with titles and royal allowances.

When the situation with Diana came to a full boil, Elizabeth must have been reminded of the pain and mortification caused by Edward so many years ago, as well as the criticisms her father endured over being too kind and generous (and therefore wasteful) in a settlement for Edward. Royalty is a job and a duty which is done for love of country, not love of wealth and trappings. Royal families who spend the country’s coffers on supporting a retinue of distaff family and consorts do not remain royal very long.

The Queen is a fascinating picture, even if you have no interest in the British monarchy or glamorous deceased princesses. The addition of the Tony Blair plot establishes that this is, in fact, a political picture above all else. Britain constantly struggles with the question of the relevancy of the royal family. What is the point of a monarchy in a democratic republic? The Queen shows a woman determined to remain relevant, someone who takes her role as advisor to the Prime Minister seriously, even when no one else does.

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