It offends me that my compatriots are stumbling over one another to bury this film under hyperbole
Published: 27 February 2007
Helen Mirren is by all accounts a gracious and charming person and she is certainly an actress of superlative skill. I thought her performance in Elizabeth I was staggering but her Elizabeth II has left me stumped. And the clean sweep she achieved at the Oscars has just confirmed my feeling that there is something excessive, almost anxious, in our eagerness to hail The Queen. I simply don't see what the fuss is about.
Far be it for me to rain on Dame Helen's parade but all the grovelling on the other side of the pond has aggravated me out of my general state of indifference to The Queen as well as the Queen herself.
Perhaps it offends my pride that my compatriots in America have been stumbling over one another in their haste to bury the film under hyperbole and panegyric. According to the American press the slightly agreeable comedy is a "masterpiece", "magnificent", "gripping" and an "audacious triumph".
Granted that it might have been a bit cheeky to portray the reigning British monarch in her lifetime, what is particularly audacious about this reverent portrait of a heroically dignified queen? It's pretty familiar territory in point of fact, a film with very little plot that is a character study of an extremely well-known character.
I'm sure the Queen loves her country deeply; I find it harder to accept the shibboleth that she has sacrificed herself on the altar of thankless duty. The benefits of royalty - it's good to be the king as Mel Brooks observed - presumably outweigh its costs. I am among those who think the perks of her job warrant the occasional stiffening of her lip. More to the point, though the general attitude of awe-struck delight at the way the film managed to "humanise" the Queen - a word so ubiquitous in the film's stateside reviews as to constitute a refrain - baffles me. Mirabile dictu. The Queen is human.
This dazzling insight was arrived at by means of a performance hailed as little short of miraculous.
One review described the scene in which Mirren as the Queen watches footage of Diana on television and "simply stares, her eyes widening ever so slightly", but managing, according to the reviewer, to convey "distaste, horror, pity, regret, bewilderment and perhaps something else, envy." It's quite a catalogue, although anger and resentment would seem the more obvious emotions on display in what is, after all, just a stare.
I just don't see what was so remarkable in this act of impersonation. Bringing Elizabeth I to life was a feat of imaginative daring and skill but showing Queen Elizabeth II keeping her emotions in check? It reminded me of the exaggerated tribute offered to Cate Blanchett in The Aviator, who I was repeatedly informed had practically "channelled" Katharine Hepburn. I was left wondering if any of these reviewers had actually seen a Katharine Hepburn film.
What does The Queen tell us that we did not already know? The hysterical mourning that Diana's death prompted could only have discomfited a woman like Elizabeth. Where is the mystery in this? It is a tribute to Peter Morgan's intelligence and skill that he managed to find a story at all but I was left with a distinct feeling that this Queen, as it were, had no clothes.
Royalty like celebrity seems to have been invented in order that we might collectively imbue ordinary people with extraordinary qualities and then find it remarkable to find they are actually ordinary after all. Unless we still believe in the divine right of monarchs, by definition the Queen is extraordinary only in her circumstances which are certainly exceptional.
On the whole she is exceptionally fortunate and yet we insist on seeing her as unfortunate. Helen Mirren at least earned her material reward with talent and hard work, the Queen was handed hers and she has had the good sense and good grace to spend her life trying to earn them, but she never can.
There is nothing inhuman in any of this and yet The Queen is apparently marvellous for its radical ability to humanise the Queen. It is my fellow Americans who are by far the most gushing and fawning in their praises. America has never been able to free itself from a toxic addiction to royalty. We are immensely proud of the revolution we fought to liberate ourselves from the tyrannical shackles of mad King George - and to a lesser extent his wife - also played by Helen Mirren. But ever since we kicked them out we have been inviting them back and literally rolling out the red carpet.
Some terrible lingering need in the American psyche makes us eager to adore, to worship; we are in a co-dependent relationship with British royalty. We need help and Helen Mirren should show us the way.
She is after all a card-carrying republican with strong anti-monarchical sympathies in general, despite her fondness for this particular monarch.
By all accounts a downright, forthright and upright woman she might do us all a favour and play a revolutionary for a change. Maybe then Americans could start being arrivistes waiting to arrive, perennial parvenues at the royal banquet.
**The writer is a senior lecturer in American Studies at the University of East Anglia