Sense and sensibility

The Queen

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, May 21, 2007


Arriving in San Francisco one day in 1983, I saw on the news that Queen Elizabeth II was to dine that evening with President Reagan in Golden Gate Park. Having nothing else to do, I climbed into a cab and grandly declared, in the style of the nursery rhyme pussycat, "I want to look at the Queen!"

"Any queen in particular, buddy?" responded the cabbie. "This town's full of them."

He dropped me on a street corner where hundreds had already assembled, including a dozen Irish protestors chanting IRA slogans. Eventually, the longest motorcade I'd ever seen rolled by, and, finally, there in a limousine window was the face on all those postage stamps, bestowing upon us her regal wave, a quarter-turn of her upright cupped hand. The bystanders erupted in cheers -- including the IRA supporters, who hopped up and down in joy. Then she was gone, and the Irish demonstrators slunk off, shame-faced at succumbing to the glamour of the crown.

But the Queen's dignity was trumped by the rapidly emerging visual grace of her daughter-in-law, the Princess of Wales, a goddess who deigned to appear on the cover of People every month.

That Elizabeth's stiff upper lip response to Diana's 1997 death threatened the very existence of the monarchy is the premise of playwright Peter Morgan's witty and empathetic screenplay for "The Queen," now out on DVD.

At first, the Queen doesn't take the histrionic excesses of grief on the telly seriously -- most of the Princess's early mourners appear to be either silly girls or male homosexuals. Her callow new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that close student of opinion polls, however, shamelessly declares Diana, that epitome of high society glamour, to be the "People's Princess." Elizabeth dismissively rejects Blair's counsel that the Windsors mourn in view of the media.

The Queen finally realizes that the stoicism that got Britain through WWII is obsolete when she watches an interview with a burly truck driver camped out with his young daughter in front of Kensington Palace. He's her kind of subject, a plain man who could be counted on if the Germans had to be put in their place again. And yet, he's gone mad, too.

Meanwhile, to the disgust of his anti-monarchist wife and staff, the New Labour Prime Minister begins to realize that the Queen's older and sterner code of conduct represents something finer than the hysteria of his "Cool Britannia." They compromise, and together save the throne.

While the film's plot reflects the conventional wisdom that the frenzied national response to the Princess's death represented a mortal danger to monarchy, that never seemed terribly plausible. As the Sex Pistols pointed out in their 1977 hit single God Save the Queen, from a purely pragmatic viewpoint, the Queen is to be saved "Cos tourists are money."

Moreover, the staggering orgy of princess-worship that followed Diana's death hardly demonstrated that the British people thought royalty was outmoded. They clearly adored monarchy. They just wanted better-looking monarchs. Following the Royal Family remains as popular as ever because it offers soap opera in the guise of affairs of state.

That historical quibble aside, "The Queen" is a delight. The film seems to promise the thrill of gossip, but instead delivers the rarer satisfaction of displaying contemporary public figures behaving well. At the recent Oscars, Morgan earned the rare distinction of writing the screenplays for both the Best Actress, Helen Mirren in "The Queen," and the Best Actor, Forrest Whitaker in "The Last King of Scotland." With similar symmetry, Mirren won Golden Globes for playing Elizabeth II in the movies and Elizabeth I on television.

"The Queen" was a deserved hit because of Mirren's stupendous performance. As Cockney actor Michael Caine has often pointed out, the poor talk fast and loud because they don't expect anybody to pay attention for long. Mirren's Queen, in contrast, dominates every scene through her stately assurance that the merest furrowing of the royal brow will suffice to convey her boundless disappointment in the meretricious modern world.

The ineffable superiority of the Queen's arch-English persona left me wanting to apologize to her for the unpleasantness of 1776. As Mirren conclusively demonstrates, the British class system produces better actors than America's cults of the casual and authentic. Every Brit is trained to play a role in society, and many take it on themselves to attempt to pass into higher roles, so stage and screen are only natural extensions of daily life.

Rated PG-13 for Mrs. Blair's brief strong language.


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