Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The celluloid throne

The Queen granted me a royal lesson in human behavior the other night.

Not Her Majesty, to be sure. Cecile and I had already been to Buckingham Palace without receiving an invitation to tea. But the opening of Helen Mirin’s new film, The Queen, was just too great an opportunity to miss for transplanted Yanks.

We paid the equivalent to $35 for two tickets at Nottinghill Gate Cinema -- and you thought U.S. movie prices were outrageous. There is a significant difference in atmosphere, however. The Nottinghill Gate is a former music hall with ornate ceiling decorations and a stage. The single-screen theater offers a full bar and a snack menu far beyond nachos.

And then there was the film. Until I was back outside and talked to a middle-aged British couple, I thought it was just my lack of Britannic experience that made me think the royal characterizations were “spot on.” But the press and most of the Britons I have run into are amazed not only at how well Mirin looks and acts like the Queen, but how well the nuances of Charles, the Queen Mother and especially Tony Blair came through.

Yes, Tony Blair. The film might have easily been entitled “Young Tony” as “The Queen.” It takes up right when Blair wrests the Labour Party away from its left-wing roots and sweeps into the country vowing to modernize while protecting social welfare. To be sure, the UK critics say director Stephen Frears gave Blair too much credit for bringing sanity to the Royal Muddle when Princess Diana died, but even if it is fiction the plot is food for thought.

The story actually has three streams, represented by three protagonists. The Queen and her family (Philip the Boor, Charles the Hesitant and Queen Mother the Irascible) are stuck in another era – an era that may have never existed outside the regal imagination. They truly believe the British people will simply smile and curtsy to their monarch without question and that it was only the press that stoked the fire of admiration for that nasty Diana.

Blair is something of an urban rube in an ill-fitting suit who is a bit overwhelmed by it all. His wife detests royalty and misses no opportunity to say so. But Blair is also an astute observer of the collision of politics and culture. When even his wife and aides advise him to go for the throat of the Royals, he recognizes the value of the monarchy to the Sceptred Isle. Implausibly, he is a radical realist.

The overlooked third protagonist in the film is Blair’s chief aide, Andrew Campbell. He is the archetypical political wonk – cynical to a fault, loyal to his man, impatient for the next big win. The sharp-tongued and sharp-witted Campbell must have either memorized or inspired every episode of West Wing -- politics is neither polite nor merciful. (It was Campbell, by the way, who wrote the joke about Blair’s wife that the PM used to critics this week. He also gets credit for naming Diana “the people’s princess.)

The tension between the three sides is the meat of the plot. That the three were able to reach even a fragile state of balance is rather amazing and very much worth watching.

Equally amazing was the timing of the film’s release. When the cameras started rolling for the movie several years ago, Frears could not have known it would premiere just as Blair is being ushered to an unwanted retirement. Good call. At the end of the film, Queen Elizabeth tells a cocky Tony that, as it did for her, his popularity could fall in a moment.

It did.

There is also a momentary quip that almost no American will get but that brought down the house in Nottinghill Gate. As Blair is dashing about solving a crisis an aide shouts “Gordon is on the phone.”

Gordon Brown is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Blair’s erstwhile partner in the New Labour revolution. They struck a deal that Brown would get the PM spot in a few years but Blair liked No. 10 and refused to budge. Now Brown is the archrival who is forcing Blair to resign.

In the film, Blair curtly responds, “He’ll have to wait.” And though Brown waited and waited, I’m glad I didn’t.

A curtsy, M’am.

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