A Tale Of Two Queens
Fortunately for my Sundries readership, I have already seen both and am willing to mouth of about them at length.
Aren't you the lucky ones.
First, let me say that whilst I will concentrate on Stephen Frear's semi-biopic on Queen Elizabeth II, both these films have a certain thread in common -- yet, in differing ways.
The Queen will appeal to people precisely because we think we know a lot about the British Royal Family, and even more specifically, this woman who has been in the media spotlight going on 80 years, now.
Whereas Marie Antoinette will displease just as many people, because it's precisely a stylistic, modernist re-telling of a supposedly well-known character in history.
Perhaps it's this historical remove which allows purists to have a certain intimacy with Marie Antoinette, which they feel has been intruded upon by pop culture, and not in a good way. You can hear the sniffs from here.
In fact, one gets the feeling Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette would be remarkably at home being montaged on Entertainment Tonight, complete with slo-mo last shot, having her boobs felt up by Isaac Mizrahi on Versailles' red carpet.
At least, she wouldn't be shocked.
Here I have to inject myself into our little tale. As ever.
I cannot forebear to mention two things about me, which you must know about before we continue:
And no, she wasn't a maid at BP, though I have it on good authority that Princess Anne doesn't differentiate between Duchess or dustman. In fact, none of them do.
You're either royal, or you are not. A bit like being a Kennedy.
That little egocentric interlude over, we can now soldier on with the reviews.
(Note, yes, there are spoilers included, so if you don't want to know, tough)
The Queen deals with Elizabeth II's handling of the Diana death crisis, which many felt she handled like a Billingsgate fishwife at a garden party.
What the film highlights, unbeknownst to many of us, is the central role freshly-elected Prime Minister Tony Blair, then New Labour's blue-eyed boy, played in the matter.
By now, everyone knows Helen Mirren gives a tour-de-force performance as the Queen, but few people are mentioning what I consider an even better characterisation by Michael Sheen, a well-known character actor in Britain, who recently played the irreplaceable Kenneth Williams on the BBC.
-- If Sheen is known at all, he's known as the guy Kate Beckinsale dumped for Len Wiseman. Ouch --
The story of The Queen is about transformation.
The superficial transformation, such as what you saw the Queen do in her public appearances, the allowing of the rituals of monarchy to be revised, post-Diana; and the deeper transformation, the one that really counts, the one which comes close to changing one as a human being, within ourselves.
I am careful not to use the word change, because psychologically, there is no real change possible -- simply a greater understanding of the self.
Realistically, not much has changed in the way the monarch presents herself to the public.
She is still her grandmother, Queen Mary's, spitting image.
You know how in every family, a person often resembles not the parent, but the grandparent most?
Well, if you know one thing about Elizabeth II, know that her personality is that of her redoubtable grandmother -- the same self-effacing, fusty, and yet eminently sensible, GOOD woman that was the consort of George V.
God, she even dresses like Queen Mary, bless her.
Tell me, who else in 2006 could carry off fur cuffs and a toque with such, erm, panache, let's call it for the sake of kindess?
But like old Queen Mary, that august Victorian who presided over the age of the flapper, cocktails and Hiroshima, the present Queen is simply a creature not in lock-step with her era.
I would go further, and say she lacks Queen Mary's easy theatricality, and doesn't even seem very much at home with the matronly disguise she appropriated for herself all too soon, as a young woman.
In short, unlike her grandmother, and certainly unlike her sweetly down-to-earth mother, the late Queen Elizabeth, she never looks like she's ENJOYING herself as queen.
I often fantasise that Elizabeth II and Tiger Woods are playing golf together (bear with me), since neither show the least glimmer of happiness during their rounds, neither royal nor golfing.
To them, doing what they do seems like an effort, and the sighs of relief can be heard from both them and the crowds, once they have passed.
And it's this esprit, this artless charm that prevents Elizabeth II from being loved by her people, although no one can deny her respect.
Or can they?
In the film, The Queen, we see all too well that there are people in Tony Blair's circle who are more than willing to belittle her role as monarch, and to ascribe positives, such as detailed attention to ritual and consideration of duty (the mark of tradition and self-abnegation), to her in the form of negatives.
Elizabeth II is definitely not a part of their Cool Britannia.
Neither in her manner, which is distant; nor in her voice, which is humourously dated even for her set; nor in her attitudes, which are stuck circa-London Blitz, could she ever be down with the late baby boom homies at 10 Downing.
You could be asking yourself right now:
Yeah, Vic, we know that. Tell us something we don't know.
Well, this is where my relative comes in, she of the hobnobbing with the high and mighty.
Did you know that Cherie Blair had to be coaxed to go with her hubby, to meet with the monarch for the "kissing of hands" at Buckingham Palace?
She refused point-blank to be a part of this hidebound ritual, and only an intervention by a close family member, did she attend.
(Heh. I know you thought I was going to spill more intimate beans, but my lips are sealed. Wild horses wouldn't pry out of me the fact that Prince Andrew once ordered a case of Wesson Oil to be brought up to his bachelor wing at Buck House)
The film The Queen does a good job of showing this truculence by the Blair camp, but it is Michael Sheen's portrayal of exasperation transforming into admiration, and even, as hinted by the actress playing his wife, falling a little in love with the Queen, where you can see the boy Prime Minister, become a man.
Contrastingly, in a sense, the present Queen has never been able to be a girl.
She has always had to be the more serious sister.
She has always had to be the more careful wife.
She has always had to be the more dutiful monarch, the better to keep the pressures of our world at bay.
As such, you can see how she and the poor, misguided creature that was the late Princess Diana, were polar opposites of each other.
Like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the Queen she doesn't give interviews, even when she must be fairly aching to talk.
Princess Diana, on the other hand, ran to her media buddies every chance she could get, in a dazzlingly modern display of Oprah Winfreytitis.
The Queen's clothes are dowdy, but like Queen Mary, they are iconic.
You can always pick her out in a crowd, and for those who wait for HOURS in a queue to see her, it comes close to being good manners.
Princess Diana's idea of how royalty should act and dress was in a way, almost American, and therefore rather foreign -- she was certainly unlike many even in her own aristocratic millieu, who are notorious for being bad dressers, even slovenly.
I myself, always thought she mixed up being a runway model with being a princess, with the bulimia, the suicide threats, and the lovers in tow.
The more you think about it, the more her dying in a Mercedes alongside her Egyptian billionaire boyfriend in a tunnel in Paris IS precisely how you picture her going out.
Like James Dean wrapping his Porsche around a tree, or Marilyn Monroe OD'ing, it just fits.
Lastly, their ideas of being mothers were as chalk and cheese.
Even if she weren't Queen, and therefore busy eating rattlesnake in Fiji, one gets the sense the Elizabeth II would not have been such a hands-on parent as the Princess of Wales was -- or indeed, her own mother was.
She is not the huggy sort, nor is she the kind to show her emotions on her fur-covered sleeve.
In that, again, she is very English, very much upper-class, whereas Diana was almost the Dr. Phil bourgeois poster child: emotive, passionate, but for all that, disturbed.
The generational divide was just too much for these women to handle, when the latter was alive.
What Helen Mirren does is to strip away the Queen and show the woman, the Lilibet who we all recognise, must be deep inside.
The child who grew up and had her personality crystallised during the War, where you pitched in and helped during the greatest privations suffered by your people, rather than sulked inside great big palaces, covered in glory and Versace.
But for all that, Princess Diana thought in grand terms, and was concerned with the suffering of others, as a kind of link to the suffering she experienced in her private life since her own parents' divorce.
This is starkly opposite to Elizabeth II, who is much more narrow in her tastes.
I had once heard from this relative that the Queen is unusually gossipy and even a little vengeful, when it comes to being crossed.
She likes nothing more than to hear below-stairs gossip, and an easy way to get ahead in royal service, is to provide her with juicy morsels of who is going out with whom.
The Queen especially likes, I am told, to know the rumpy-pumpy business of Covent Garden actors and actresses -- and just thinking of that, puts a smile on my face.
Imagine the scene:
3rd footman comes in with a tray, and greets the Queen with, "Your Majesty will never guess who Francesca Annis is shagging these days!".
Why, the old gal is just like one of us!
Well, one of you, anyway. You think I read News of the World?
Obviously, you could tell this Queen was jealous of Diana, of her popularity with the people.
Here she was, day after day never being able to change her hair because you'd have to update every pound note and postage stamp in the kingdom, slavishly following the Court Circular's schedule, when up and comes this young smoot of a girl, who all she does is to hold an AIDS patient by the hand, and hey presto, everyone loves her.
You think the Queen and members of the royal family never held lepers by the hand before!?
But the psychology of royalty is rather fascinating.
What makes her jealousy very human is that to your average person, the Queen is surrounded by flunkies and rituals which constantly throw her specialness to her face.
God Save The Queen.
The bowing and the scraping.
Her monogramme on milk jugs.
Her face on tea cozies.
In fact, it's a miracle that European royalty are not more full of themselves, but this is where the beauty of being born royal, rather than marrying into royalty like the Princess of Wales, is most alive.
Unlike Madame Ceauşescu who commissioned Christian Dior to make her a perfume only for herself (an idea ripped off by Imelda Marcos), called "Elena", the Queen doesn't ask for any of these luxuries for herself.
She doesn't commission her portrait to be painted, which is the first scene of The Queen -- they are scheduled for her.
She doesn't request that people curtsey to her because she thinks she's so goddarned special -- she does so because it's protocol to the office she embodies.
So at the very end of the film, when a little girl presents her with a bouquet of flowers, the Queen thinks the child brought it to be placed in memory of Princess Diana at the gates of Buckingham Palace.
And she is genuinely shocked, and honestly touched, when she finds out they are for HER. Yes, for little Lilibet, the girl who played nice and won in the end.
It is easy for us to love that which is young, beautiful, and modern.
It is not so easy for us to love that which is dowdy, plain, and old-fashioned.
That takes a special kind of person, not one who is stuck on superficial, but one who genuinely appreciates the hard work and selflessness of a lifetime.
As Helen Mirren's Queen was heard saying, "I trust in the common sense of the British people."
After Princess Diana's death, like after the abdication of Edward VIII which brought this elderly woman to the position she now occupies, people were able to shake off the miasmic vision of a person they thought they wanted, and were given the good fortune to better appreciate those they were left with.
I am no monarchist (perhaps, though, I am a royalist, which is different -- I have no hatred towards their kind), and would prefer a republic in my homeland, but don't tell me for one moment we are not lucky to have this lady as Queen today.
Whatever else she is, we won't ever see her like again.
So far, I haven't mentioned Marie Antoinette too much, in this blogpost.
Perhaps, it's because I wasn't as engaged by the remake of the old, wonderful Norma Shearer film as I was by The Queen.
Here I have to say that I didn't like either film too much.
Or rather, I was nervous throughout the first, and irritated by the latter.
This does not mean either film is not very good -- on the contrary, both are wonderful for what they are.
But you can dislike something, and think it is marvellous, at one and the same time.
I suppose that is the true meaning of what these films represent.
Many people are not in the least bit interested in what monarchies represent, or royalty, but they are willing to suspend their dislike, if the storyline is interesting enough.
And believe me, both are.
What's more, I think The Queen is more intriguing, than what has been described by one cheeky reviewer on IMDB, as "Gidget goes to Versailles".
Possibly because the pay off, the end of the film, is where The Queen hits pay dirt, a notoriously difficult thing to achieve, as any novelist will tell you.
Too often you walk away from a film, let down by a sudden, unsatisfying end, as Aristophanes once complained.
That was Marie Antoinette, but not Elizabeth II.
One gets boring and ridiculous at the end, whereas the former leaves you strangely edified and pleasurably surprised.
As in real life.
ADDENDUM: Not that the Kirsten Dunsts and her ilk cannot portray Queens successfully, like mellowed actresses of Helen Mirren's calibre, but MY GOD.
Scarlett Johanssen as Mary Queen of Scots???
What next, Hillary Duff playing Cleopatra? Bloody hell...