Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Oscarblogging, Year the Second, Part the Second: Royal Pain

I'm in love with Helen Mirren.

Let's just get that out there right away. She's ridiculously talented; she's as stunningly sexy at sixty-one as she (reportedly) was at thirty; in the course of her erstwhile career she's both taken tremendous theatrical risks and honestly inspired social change by means of her television acting. She's so poised, and works so hard, and is so successful at it, and one of her major accomplishments in The Queen is that the sexiness that seems so natural in most of her work disappears almost entirely.

The Queen was, for me, a puzzling movie. The combination of Peter Morgan's script and Ms. Mirren's performance were about as good as everybody's said, and I knew it and even found myself moved to tears on one occasion, but I could not for the life of me understand why or how it was happening. I blame that on the fact that I'm American (though my viewing companion would disagree): I genuinely found it difficult to understand, to access, that degree of tradition, restraint, necessity. The movie follows the English government, both royal family and elected officials, in the wake of Princess Diana's 1997 death, regarding the decisions it has to make to represent the populace of a modernized nation driven both by tradition and media. The straightforward flaw of Morgan's script is that his exposition and explication of the royal family are often heavyhanded, veering at the beginning towards parody and at the end towards the fear that an audience might not understand his Point, but such moments are saved by Michael Sheen, Roger Allam, and Helen Mirren.

Mirren, as I mentioned, does a careful, beautiful job. The "careful" applies to how she portrays the character, not the portrayal itself: she goes fully into a character who is not permitted to go fully into herself. It is this contradiction that propels the film, the fact that among the royals, and the Queen in particular, inward action simply *is*, must be, composed of outward inaction, and Mirren skillfully shows a woman living, embodying, this contradiction because she doesn't know or approve of any other way.

I surprised myself at the point where I nearly wept, and as an American viewer, that surprise connected me to the movie out of confusion. Which is to say, I found it difficult to accept that this odd, small reaction to such an odd, small moment did indeed constitute being moved. It's that strange subtle intensity that Sofia Coppola was aiming for, and just missed, in Lost in Translation years ago. Queen Elizabeth doesn't get to show or share her thoughts, as little with Prince Philip as with anybody else; we're really required to take actions and reaction shots as evidence of her thoughts, deduce them for ourselves. To a certain degree every good movie should be, and is, like that, but even the plot itself contains no real surprises; the "historical" events in question took place only ten years ago, and none of them aside from Diana's death seem monumental in themselves.

I'm very curious about what the reaction has been in England, if such political figures as Queen Elizabeth herself and Tony Blair have the time or the inclination to see it and consider it. Given the movie, I'd be shocked if any of them made public statements about their reactions, but I wonder what the movie is like in the country where this experience is something every citizen, and individual leader, owns.

My uneducated prediction would be that this movie does not win the Best Picture Oscar (though I'll be *shocked* if Mirren does not win Best Actress), but I have to say, whatever my feelings, I'd be peculiarly impressed with the Academy if it did. It's such a blatantly non-American movie—lacking even a token American character, showing only a cursory sign of interest in American reactions and happenings ten years ago, and made with a restraint and dignity impossible to find even in (my experience of) the best American films. It's worth seeing, even if you're not in love with Helen Mirren, for the profound sense of cultural alienation you'll experience upon leaving.


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