by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - December 4, 2006) I would not be surprised to learn that the clandestine backer of Stephen Frears' film "The Queen" was Tony Blair himself. No event in the past four years has boosted his stock as much as this dramatization of the last days of Princess Diana and the role he played in coaxing the Queen into expressing some small measure of regal grief about the event. In Peter Morgan's cleverly-layered screenplay, the newly appointed Labor Prime Minister not only displays a humanistic concern for the beloved princess and the effect her death had on the populace, but is also given an opportunity stoutly to defend the integrity and sacrifice of the sovereign in the face of some rather bitter putdowns. While most everyone else is disparaging the heartless monarch for not showing the appropriate degree of respect for the sainted dead, Blair, in a short hot Speech for the Defense, reminds us of the overwhelming travails of Elizabeth in a role she never sought but performed with grace and dignity for more than half a century. In so doing, a certain requisite balance is restored to a film which much of the time feels like a thinly-veiled personal assault on the royal family and its titular head.
As a piece of pertinent filmmaking on a contemporary theme, director Stephen Frears cannot be faulted. He and his writer Peter Morgan have crafted a motion picture about a small slice of contemporary British history which could easily have been overlooked by modern historians: a moment when the royal family could play an active part in healing a nation crushed by the sudden death of one of its most beloved superstars. Simply recognizing that this could be the source for a drama, and one that could be turned into a film, is something of a major achievement. Frears's casting is also, in most cases, spot on. Helen Mirren, who I remember from my early days in the UK as the fleshly blonde who could always be counted on to bare her tits in whatever film she appeared, is here the epitome of regal dignity; a Spartan Elizabeth who believes, like many Brits of her class, that an open manifestation of feeling is tantamount to farting in public. Michael Sheen has captured the spirited extravert quality that made the early Tony Blair a real breath of fresh air in British politics and Alex Jennings, squirming with inchoate feelings and an obsession to avoid assassination, is a thoroughly credible Prince Charles; he perfectly combines the "earnest" with the "gormless." James Cromwell, something of the villain of the piece, captures the stiff, suppressed irritation with everything non-patrician that has for many years characterized the Duke of Edinburgh.
The Queen's initial reaction to Diana's death was to ignore it; place the burden of grief into the hands of the Spencer family and try, for Charles's sake, to comfort the children. When she discovered that her subsequent silence on the event was construed as callousness, had turned the entire country against her, and was injuring the reputation of the Monarchy, she began to have second thoughts. When Tony Blair applied pressure, she eventually agreed to make a showing in London, and address the British people directly about their loss. Her first impulse was, of course, the truthful one: a callous turning-away from what was both a familial and national tragedy and, perhaps subliminally, relief that a sticky problem had been providentially solved. Her second reaction, orchestrated by Blair and others, was the forced ceremonial one intended to assuage both the masses and certain prodding members of the royal family. Should we honor her for being coerced into a humane recognition of Diana's death or despise her for her reflexive hard-heartedness? I know which of those two reactions resonated with me and I expect that, at the time, it was the same with a large segment of the British public.
If you listen very carefully to "The Queen," you will hear the creak of both director and writer bending over backwards to soften the criticism of the royals -- not only in regard to their cruel treatment of Diana but simply as representative members of their class. Mirren's Queen Elizabeth is given a booster shot of humanity by having a countryside tryst with a hunted stag and, when it is killed, visiting the morgue where the dead animal's hide lies stretched on a hook. Presumably this scene was included to invest the somewhat sour and distant queen with a degree of human warmth, but the sequence also suggests she can feel more for a stag than she can a member of her own extended family.
The Queen's dislike of Diana is now an open secret but it bears analysis. What she disliked about Charles's child-bride was the openness and empathy Diana instinctively showered on almost everyone with whom she came into contact. Precisely the virtues that are lacking, not only in the royal family, but in the entire upper middle-class that still effectively governs England. The Queen is not so much a "representative of the people" as she is a supercilious and selfish member of that hierarchy which for centuries have lorded it over a citizenry that was pusillanimously awed by them. Taken as a whole and in the most general sense, the upper classes of England, from the aristocrats to the upper middle-class snobs who aspire to a rank they are unable to achieve, are intrinsically selfish, snobbish, exploitative, vapid, and devoid of empathy. They quake in their shoes when the working classes make unexpected social strides because they sense (rightly) that there is a palpable animosity between them that has a long and appalling progeny. They have been genially exploited for centuries and the gulf that separates class from class is unbridgeable in England, no matter what modernization and egalitarian reforms may be promised or even delivered.
The royal family and the circle that sycophantically revolves around them are, almost without exception, hideous examples of what has been wrong with England when it was Great Britain, became the British Isles, and has not altered appreciably now that they consider themselves Europeans. Smugness, complacency, and a pious respect for money and good breeding still consume their thoughts and dictates their behavior. Over the years, their racial enemies have changed from wogs, to blacks, to Pakis, and now to Muslims. The animosity against these underlings was always rooted in a smug sense of superiority and masked with waffle about tolerance and respect for different ethnicities. They have been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century insisting on maintaining the privileges to which they feel they have a hereditary entitlement. These are the well-bred "Ghouls of Britain" and they have ruled the land since the days of King Arthur; if one wants a personification of the breed, one need look no further than the dysfunctional royal family and the snobs whom they spawn from one generation after another.
The schizoid state of their character is clearly on view in their government. Because so many of them are merely perks bestowed in return for political or commercial favors, the House of Lords has become little more than a congregation of costumed extras who resemble refugees from a stranded Gilbert and Sullivan stock company. As for the other chamber, anyone who watches the House of Commons Prime Minister's Question Time on television must recoil from the pomposity and fatuousness of so many of those "honored members" and their mawkish attempts to effect legislation by reiterating rhetorical clichés. Even the recent melodrama surrounding accession to the Labor Party leadership is a kind of public farce, the likes of which Brian Rix used to mount regularly at the Whitehall Theatre. It is people mesmerized by a political process that can never grapple with their crises and break through to the realm of realpolitik where real solutions lie. Prime Minister's Question Time has a faithful audience in the States but it is watched as a comedy show, not a legitimate mechanism of British parliamentary democracy which truly creates change.
The Queen, according to screenwriter Peter Morgan's characterization (and convincingly from what we have learned about her for half a century), prides herself on her restraint, dignity, stoicism, and placidity; her resolve to keep the monarchy above politics and to remain as uncontroversial as possible. But despite the virtues just cited, she, her family, and the institution she represents, have become -- on the lower end -- a regular subject for tabloid exploitation and -- on the upper end -- a symbol of obsolete sovereignty whose justification in a democracy has, for many years now, been hotly challenged. If, instead of being "restrained, dignified, stoic, and placid," Elizabeth had been spontaneous, populist, fun-loving, open, and accessible, what a different figure she would have cut. Rather than being tremulously revered from behind a barrier, she would have been metaphorically embraced by a majority of her subjects. What we have here is a distinct lack of humanism which, whether in a regent or a prime minister, a lover or a member of one's immediate family, produces distance rather than closeness.
The temperament of a leader, whether of a political party or of a nation, radiates an influence on the general populace. Many of Saddam Hussein's underlings sported a Hussein moustache and looked almost like clones of their leader; during the Nazi era, one found a great number of Hitler look-alikes. Until his he-man façade completely fell apart, George W. Bush captured the imagination of tough-minded Americans who, like him, dared the enemy to "bring it on." The dominant leaders in any nation are not only emulated but often imitated as well. And if we consider the influence that subconsciously emanates from them, we can see that a nation is sometimes a reflection of its leader. The subliminal message transmitted by the royal family to their subjects encourages personality traits which are cold, haughty, snobistic, divisive and, in my view, deleterious to the national character. It is difficult to smile, kiss, or eat a bag of fish 'n chips with a stiff upper lip -- although it is quite easy to snicker, smirk, and convey an air of superiority.
This, for me, is the smoldering subtext of Stephen Frears's film but so subterranean that it exists only as a vague scent in the story he has crafted about British royalty and the sudden death of one of its more charismatic members. In short, you can't make a film about the Queen of England without reflecting the nature of Brits as a people and, once you do that, it gives even as good a film as "The Queen" a certain disturbing undercurrent.
For over a decade we've brought you uninterrupted ad-free advocacy work free of charge. But while our publication is free to you, we are long on friends and short on cash. We need you, our readers, to help us financially. Please consider sending anow. Thank you.