Stephen Frears’ The Queen, from a screenplay by Peter Morgan, turns out to be an unexpectedly sublime blend of modesty, intelligence and subtlety to open the 44th New York Film Festival—and I should know. I have been following the festival over its full 44 years, several of them as a member of the programming committee, and I am willing to bet that at 97 minutes, The Queen has the shortest running time of any opening-night film in the history of the festival. This is a measure of the film’s noteworthy unpretentiousness and economy of expression.
Mr. Frears and Mr. Morgan have chosen to place Helen Mirren’s super-Oscar-worthy Queen Elizabeth II in the curiously sympathetic role of an upholder of tradition against the media-driven hysteria of celebrity worship. What makes Ms. Mirren’s lively and lucid incarnation of the real-life dowdy queen so remarkable is that she is pitted against the real-life glamorous media mythology of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, who in death is even more in command of the country’s devotion than she was in life. And, in my opinion, at least, Elizabeth comes out on top.
Since Robert Gottlieb confessed his prejudice against the royals because of his being “an unreconstructed American republican” in his fascinating article on the Diana-Elizabeth duel in last week’s Observer, I must be equally candid in tracking my own monarchist predilections to my parents. They came to the United States from two small villages in Greece—one near Sparta (my mother) and one near Kalamata (my father)—on the Peloponnesian peninsula, a royalist stronghold of King Constantine against the anti-monarchist Venizelos government back in my mom and dad’s time. This royalist childhood orientation has put me at odds politically with all the Greek-Americans I have ever met.
In his brief comments on the movie The Queen, Mr. Gottlieb mentions a scene in which Elizabeth shoos away a majestic stag from the oncoming yelps of the royal hunting hounds, and he proceeds to dismiss it as “the Oscar moment.” A subsequent scene in which Elizabeth sees that the stag has been slain, and its head and antlers detached from the stag’s carcass for mounting, is interpreted by Mr. Gottlieb as the movie’s simplistic reminder to Elizabeth that Diana, too, is dead and deserving of some compassion. What impressed me about the second sequence is that Elizabeth does not seize the opportunity to gain sympathy with the audience by scolding the royal steward of the hunt for killing Bambi. She instead has too much respect for the feelings of her loyal servant to grandstand for the animal lovers. After all, it is supposed to be her film, not Diana’s.
Mr. Frears and Mr. Morgan show a singularly fair-minded approach to the conflict that arises between Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street during the week in 1997 after Princess Diana died in a car crash in a Paris tunnel, and just about the same time that Tony Blair brought the Labor Party to power in a national election. Some reviewers have claimed that James Cromwell’s Prince Philip and Alex Jennings’ Prince Charles have been hilariously caricatured. But, for the most part, I didn’t recognize either the hilarity or the caricature. A tall man like Mr. Cromwell in kilts doesn’t strike me as automatically funny, and after all the jokes I’ve heard over the years at the expense of the royals, I thought that neither Philip nor Charles were unfairly presented—perhaps because I sympathized with their exasperation over all the fuss that Diana’s death was causing. Apropos, at the screening I attended at the Lincoln Plaza, a near-riot ensued when two ultra-sophisticated women kept giggling at everyone in the movie, even the newsreel appearances of a radiantly smiling Princess Diana. “Are you animals?” one patron hissed. “Have you no shame?” said another. Apparently, the mourning for Princess Diana continues for some people.
For the most part, however, the bulk of the audience did not react to the picture as if it were a satirical farce, partly because Michael Sheen bore such a striking resemblance to the real-life media-saturated Tony Blair that the whole film took on the authenticity of a documentary. Mr. Blair is shown here at his political sunrise, so to speak, bringing the Labor Party to power with promises of a progressive resurgence after the Thatcher years of Conservative regression. Even the monarchy was subject to reform if not outright abolition, as Mr. Blair’s wife, Cherie, saucily played by Helen McCrory, clearly preferred. The delicacy with which Mr. Frears directs Mr. Blair’s first audiences with the Queen—first alone, and then alongside his wife—establishes a bond of respect and affection between the prime minister and the Queen. These scenes could easily have been played for laughable displays of pomposity, but Ms. Mirren and Mr. Sheen never allow that to happen by keeping the Queen and the prime minister resolutely and realistically human despite the inescapable awkwardness of their first encounter. As it turns out, Mr. Blair is more a student of history than his wife—he appreciates, as she does not, the fearsome obstacles faced and overcome by Elizabeth from her accession to the throne at a youthful age to the present.
Indeed, when she is finally forced by the sustained hysteria of the press and the populace over Diana’s demise to acknowledge the veritable ocean of flowers and laurel wreaths in front of a gate at Buckingham Palace, she provides another “Oscar moment”—this by accepting, at first unbelievingly and then gratefully, a bouquet of flowers from a little girl meant not for Diana, but for the Queen.
Ms. Mirren’s crowning moment as Elizabeth occurs in a perceptively written confrontation with the self-satisfied prime minister, in which she begs to differ with his assessment of her intervention on Diana’s behalf as a victory for the monarchy. She corrects Mr. Blair by deeming her acknowledgment of the people’s grief “a humiliation.” And then she tells him that he will someday understand her feeling when he tastes defeat.
Of course, we in the audience know, as do Mr. Frears and Mr. Morgan, that Prime Minister Tony Blair is now experiencing the sunset of his political career almost 10 years after Elizabeth’s “humiliation” on the screen.
Finally, I do not agree with one of my esteemed colleagues that The Queen doesn’t belong in the New York Film Festival because its selections should be confined to difficult foreign-language films in more need of public exposure. While I agree that The Queen is not difficult, it is sufficiently and, yes, marvelously artistic enough to qualify for inclusion.
Besides, Mr. Frears, now 65, has been in the movie business for close to 40 years, mostly making very highly regarded British television movies that have never been released here. Still, in the theatrical films we have been privileged to see, he has displayed an auteurist flair for cutting-edge subjects on both sides of the Atlantic. Among his poetically pungent entertainments from Britain are Gumshoe (1971), Bloody Kids (1979), The Hit (1984), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Prick Up Your Ears and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (both 1987), The Snapper (1993) and Liam (2000). In the U.S., he has scored with The Grifters (1990), Hero (1992), Mary Reilly (1996) and High Fidelity (2000). Perhaps the time has come to say thank you for Mr. Frears, and opening night at the 44th Annual
Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, from a screenplay by Jonathan Raymond and Ms. Reichardt, based on a short story by Mr. Raymond, plays out its minimalist plot and brief (76 minutes) running time in a skeletally articulated mood of universal alienation. There are basically only two characters, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham)—three, if you count Mark’s pregnant wife Tanya (Tanya Smith). Mark and Tanya are seen briefly in their home in Portland, Ore., when Mark receives a call from his old college friend Kurt, and agrees to go with him on a weekend camping trip to the Cascade Range in Oregon. Up to that point, Mark and Tanya had been busy non-communicating, but she suddenly conveys by her negative expression that she doesn’t think much of the idea. Indeed, she makes her first entrance by virtually flaunting her pregnancy with a defiantly thrust-out stomach. (I suppose that can be considered time-saving visual exposition.) Mark whines a bit about not wanting to make her unhappy, and the next thing we know, he is loading some supplies into his Volvo station wagon as well as his dog, who seems excited about going on the trip.
But once Mark picks up his old chum Kurt in front of the Portland apartment in which Kurt is crashing temporarily, Mark becomes all business behind the wheel, keeping his eyes on the road and letting Kurt do all the talking. He also seems impervious to all the scenic spectacles unfolding through the car windows. Meanwhile, Kurt is trying to re-establish their old hippie relationship with bits and pieces of crackerjack philosophizing, including a scene from one of his dreams in which a woman hugs him and provides him—and the audience—with an explanation of the film’s title: “Sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy.”
Instead of responding to Kurt’s conversational gambits, Mark turns on the radio periodically to his favorite station, which carries the liberal radio network Air America and its favorite message, the decline and fall of America under George Bush—a subject with which I am in total agreement, but not when it’s used as a substitute for character-developing dialogue. I am informed that Ms. Reichardt’s two previous films consist, like Old Joy, of endless shots of landscapes glimpsed through the passenger-seat window of a moving car. I have not seen either River of Grass (1994) or Ode (1999), and so I cannot construct an auteurist context for Ms. Reichardt’s despairing directorial personality, as Dave Kehr has done so elegantly and so eloquently in the September/October 2006 Film Comment.
After many false starts, Mark and Kurt reach their destination, a seemingly well-hidden and seldom-frequented natural hot-springs facility. When both men undress and get into separate tubs, and Kurt begins massaging Mark’s back, I couldn’t help thinking that they had been heading for Brokeback Mountain all along. But that’s just me; I have never had the slightest desire to go camping with anyone else, male or female. Apparently nothing “happens,” and the two men return to Portland with no hope of ever reconciling. Mark will presumably resume his middle-class existence as a husband and father, and Kurt will continue on his bohemian path. Some reviewers have suggested that it is Mark who has failed some sort of test meant to broaden his narrow bourgeois outlook. But if our society is in decline-and-fall mode, as Ms. Reichardt seems to suggest, are middle-aged hippies likelier to be happy than their conventional middle-class former friends, now saddled with family responsibilities? For that matter, how can one measure degrees of joy, old or new? Mark is simply too undefined a character even to begin answering that question. Let us say simply that Ms. Reichardt’s brand of minimalism leaves me truly joyless.