Monday, September 04, 2006

The Queen on the big screen : Peter Whittle on the biggest Royal taboo

Sunday Times on September 3rd 2006

With a command performance by Helen Mirren, The Queen dares to break the biggest royal taboo, says Peter Whittle - it takes her seriously.

In the middle of a lonely, windswept valley, an elderly grey-haired woman climbs out of her broken-down car. We watch as she leans down, peers at the chassis to inspect the damage, whispers 'Bugger,' and calls for help on a mobile phone. She sits and waits patiently in the stillness. Then, her back turned to us, she starts to silently weep. There's a rustle of noise behind her, and, recovering herself, she turns to see an imperial stag standing, watching her. The two fix each other's gaze. The distant shouts of a stalking party come gradually nearer. She quietly encourages the animal to flee – 'Shoo! Shoo!' Suddenly it is gone, and she smiles to herself.

The woman is Elizabeth II, Queen of all her realms and territories, one of the most famous faces in the world, butt of satirists and lightening rod for a nation in the middle of an identity crisis. The incident is fictional of course, and, despite the presence of the iconically familiar hairdo, the features are unmistakably those of Helen Mirren. The scene is nevertheless extraordinarily powerful in its sheer audaciousness. It's as though we're being allowed to see something for the very first time, a glimpse into the inner life of somebody who, despite being in our lives for over half a century as a formal, unchanging presence, we've assumed barely possessed one.

It's one of the pivotal moments in The Queen, a film made by the same team who produced The Deal, Channel 4's dramatization of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's Granita moment. Written by Peter Morgan, directed by Stephen Frears and premiering at the Venice Film Festival, it explores the relationship between the new Prime minister, played once more by Michael Sheen, and the monarch, during the week in 1997 when Diana died and much of the country appeared hysterical with grief. With the royal family holed up in Balmoral, unable or unwilling to understand such an unexpected national outpouring, it follows Blair's attempts to reconnect the Queen with her people at a time when the public mood seemed on the verge of turning dangerous. Two versions of the same country seemed to be on a collision course. She, and the unyielding sense of duty- before-self which motivates her - is at the centre of the film.

'It's shocking to see her as a woman, isn't it?' says Frears. Yes – and on the big screen too, as opposed to the event TV drama slot usually lined up for a project such as this ('Well, she is the Queen!' he explains). It is an account of those events which is, he says, sympathetic to her as a human being operating within the power dynamics of the time. So alongside those solitary tears, we see her watching TV in bed with a hot water bottle, being comforted and affectionately nicknamed 'cabbage' by her husband (James Cromwell), seeking reassurance from her mother (Sylvia Simms) and being irritated by the extravagance of her eldest son (Alex Jennings). It is almost surreal, the experience of seeing one so familiar in such unfamiliar settings and situations, rather as if she's suddenly walked in on one of your dreams – a frequent occurrence, apparently, for many of her subjects. 'You're dealing with the unconscious, and the national unconscious,' says Frears. 'She's been in my life longer than any other person.'

Despite the best efforts of journalists with their pictures of breakfast Tupperware, and those carefully modulated behind-the-scenes BBC documentaries such as Royal Family and Elizabeth R which come along once a decade, so little is really known about the private life of our Head of State that constructing a convincing portrait of the world she inhabits would seem to be a harder task than recreating Middle Earth.

'I spoke to just about everyone who would meet me - former employees, members of staff,' says Peter Morgan. 'I did meet with a lot of people who spend time with her, people who are regular guests at Balmoral.' The script was re-written countless times, not, he says, to change anything fundamental, but as a result of a 'really forensic' approach to detail. If it was pointed out that the Queen wouldn't say this or that that wouldn't happen, then getting it right was part of the joy of it. For example, on Charles's fear that a sniper would get him: 'You have to be able to substantiate that. I would never have written that if I hadn't known it was the case.'

But inspiration also came from much closer to home. 'To be honest with you, my mother is exactly the same age as the Queen, and to that generation, the people who were brought up in the war, the notion of complaining is such anathema. There's a frugality, a practicality, a selflessness which completely characterises my mother,' he says, 'and so often, I would think, what would my mother say, how would she react?' This theme of a younger generation attempting to come to terms with and maybe re-appraise the values of an older one runs through the film. He has Blair flying to the Queen's defence when she is mocked by Alistair Campbell, and notes that along with Blair's innate conservatism, the prime-minister's mother would, too, have been exactly the same age as the monarch.

'The Queen's presence is so powerful. Her image is so much part of our everyday iconography and currency. It certainly had the most profound effect on the film set, once Helen Mirren started inhabiting the part, just the impact she would have, walking through a casual conversation you might be having in a car park,' he says. 'Equally, why it's such a powerful experience to watch, is everything we're bringing to it as English citizens, even as global citizens.'
It must have helped too that while on the face of it Helen Mirren might seem an unlikely choice, she herself has commented that she actually bears a remarkable resemblance to the monarch. A voice coach was used to get that clenched-jawed yet somewhat world-weary tone familiar from numerous Christmas broadcasts. 'At the read-through of the script, when I wasn't looking at Helen Mirren when she was reading it, it sounded to me just like the Queen being in the room,' says Robert Lacey, author of best-selling biographies of the Queen and an historical advisor on the film. For him, Mirren captures both her inhibition, and a sense that there's a very warm woman struggling to get out. 'I think of all the characters, the Queen is the most fully realised.'
As catalyst for the crisis that week nine years ago, Diana is seen only in archive footage, a fleeting image caught by the camera and glimpsed between the personalities in both court and government who drove the events of that week. Helen McCrory as a famously shallow-curtseying Cherie Blair, Tim McMullen as a boorish Campbell, and Alex Jennings's all-at-sea Prince of Wales all revolve around the central relationship of monarch and prime-minister. But if The Deal was Blair's show, we're left in no doubt, from the title down, as to who takes precedence here.

It's also the first time that Elizabeth, and the role she inhabits, has been portrayed seriously. We have certainly become used to TV dramas about the royals which highlight their supposed cold dysfunctionalism (as in The Lost Prince), weak duplicity (Whatever Love Means) or pointlessness (The Queen's Sister). When she hasn't been completely absent from such depictions, the Queen has been used as almost comic relief, to the greatest effect perhaps in Prunella Scales's witty imitation in Alan Bennett's play about Anthony Blunt, A Question of Attribution.

So what has changed? For Lacey, the events of 1997 marked the start of a process when Elizabeth started to emerge as a figure in her own right. 'In the Queen's lifetime there were three women who competed with her, in terms of public recognition – Princess Margaret, Diana and the Queen Mother, all in very different ways,' he says. 'In fact, a great part of the success of the Golden Jubilee was that, Diana had gone in 1997, and the Queen Mother and Margaret within weeks of each other in 2002, and it made it much easier for people to understand who the Queen was.'

In some respects the Queen has taken over her mother's role as granny figure and national matriarch. The view that attitudes to her have shifted, that respect has turned to real affection, as was demonstrated by the celebrations for her 80th this year, is one which is shared by the film-makers.

'It feels to me like criticism of the Queen has become, as recently possibly as the last couple of years, treasonable,' says Morgan, who started out writing the film as a republican and seems to have a slightly more ambivalent attitude now. 'She's reached an age when to kick an old lady is completely undignified. I think there's a sense of national shame in doing it. There's an acknowledgement too that here is a person, and I hope that's what's moving about the film, who has given her life to something which feels, certainly today, an unbelievably unfashionable idea, and I think people recognise that.'

Convention dictates that the Queen never comments on portraits painted of her. However it's surely unthinkable that she won't at some stage see her celluloid alter ego. 'I'm sure she's quite wise. I'm sure she can deal with it,' says Frears. But what is she likely to think of it? Lacey hazards a well-informed guess: 'I can see her saying something like, 'Well, that could have been worse', and ordering a gin and Dubonnet.'

The Queen is on general release on September 15.

1 comment:

Tiffin said...

What a delight to read a review of a film about the monarchy that apparently avoids a sneering and patronising attitude. I also find it encouraging that those involved -- plus even Richard Lacey on the sidelines -- have had the intellectual maturity to review their own previusly well-published prejudices. Can't wait to see it.