Royal Pains

'The Queen' and all her kooky clan, even the corgis.

By Steve Burgess 20 Oct 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess reviews films for The Tyee every second Friday.

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Masterful Mirren

The Queen, Stephen Frear's new film about crisis in Britain's Royal Family, is a great movie. But is it great history? And should we expect that much when cinema depicts living public figures and events of the recent past?

For all the many titillating scandals that have plagued the Windsors over recent years, it was the death of Princess Diana on Aug. 31, 1997, that precipitated the most serious crisis. As a hurricane of popular grief swirled around them, the Royals remained private and aloof, reinforcing the widespread belief that they were only too pleased to be rid of the pesky princess. Prime Minister Tony Blair pleaded privately for an official response, but Queen Elizabeth stuck to protocol and remained in the family's Scottish vacation hideaway. Soon, the stunned monarch was watching her subjects turn against her like so many rabid corgis.

If these events form the heart of Frear's movie, Helen Mirren is the real centre of it. Fresh from her portrayal of the first Queen Elizabeth in a British-made miniseries, (with Jeremy Irons) Mirren nails Queen Elizabeth II in what must be called a command performance. The corgis are great, too. James Cromwell has the thankless task of portraying Prince "Tits on a Boar" Philip, while Alex Jennings squirms through the film as Prince Charles. Michael Sheen and Helen McCrory play Tony and Cherie Blair, hilariously struggling with the terrifying details of royal etiquette on their first time in The Presence. (Diana herself is shown only in news footage.)

Fact or fiction

British audiences may get a few hidden chuckles from Peter Morgan's script. Morgan also wrote a movie called The Deal, depicting the secret pact between Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown to swap places in the Prime Minister's seat, a deal not yet honoured by Blair. Brown is mentioned only once in The Queen, when Prime Minister Blair is informed that his partner/rival is on the phone. "Tell him to wait," Blair replies.

Not too much longer, Tony.

With so many recent historical films being costume period pieces with a loose connection to fact -- anyone else dreading Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette? -- it is fascinating to watch a dramatic chronicle of events most of us recall, starring figures who have yet to quit the public stage. But this bold approach highlights a responsibility moviemakers generally fail to acknowledge -- a commitment to truth.


In the same way that many people now get their vitamins from fruit drinks and their news from late night talk shows, a lot of folks get their history from Hollywood. Not a good thing -- generally only 10 per cent real fruit juice. Mel Gibson has ridden roughshod over historical truth in flicks like Braveheart and the egregious American Revolution epic The Patriot. Steven Spielberg rewrote modern history in Munich. Just entertainment, the filmmakers protest. But people believe it.

The Queen is by no means irresponsible in this regard. Frears and Morgan drew on numerous insider accounts to paint their picture of the palace. Details like Prince Charles' fear of being shot by angry mourners clearly came from inside reports.

But other scenes are obvious inventions. Unless Her Majesty got drunk and chatted to the gang down the pub, the Queen's encounter with a mighty stag out in the Scottish heather is a dramatic conceit. And private conversations with Princes Charles and Philip have been imagined by Morgan, albeit to make valid points about Windsor family relationships.

Still, The Queen has the ring of truth to it. Helped along by Mirren's amazing personification of the British monarch, the movie captures the feel of a month that would launch a million commemorative collectible Diana figurines. Drama is not documentary, and frequently makes a poor teacher. But as popular history goes, The Queen is as good as we can expect.  [Tyee]

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