Freeze Frame #127: The Queen

The trouble with biopics — or movies based on real life incidents or characters in general — is that one keeps wondering how much of it is fact and how much is fiction. The good ones manage to create a world that is internally consistent and emotionally true, to the extent that we don’t care so much about the source material anymore.

In choosing to chronicle the goings-on in the British royal household in the aftermath of Diana’s death, The Queen treads a difficult path in some ways. Call it some kind of post-colonial hangover if you wish, but I find myself reacting to a biopic about a musician or a football player differently from that about Queen Elizabeth II.

It is to Helen Mirren’s credit, however, that from the very first moment she is on screen, she is The Queen. I have always loved her work, in movies like Gosford Park and especially in lightweight fare like Calendar Girls (the sort of comedy that only the Brits seem to know how to make). But this is easily the best thing I have seen her in.

The Queen is no doubt quite a compelling story, but when I think back on it, the scene I keep returning to is a quiet one in the countryside. The queen decides to take a drive through her estates in Balmoral one day. She refuses an escort and drives the vehicle herself. And while crossing a little stream, the car breaks down. So she calls for someone to come pick her up. 

And while she waits there alone, a strong resourceful woman rendered temporarily helpless, the weight of the world seems to finally crash down upon her shoulders and she begins to sob. But then she notices a sound and sees a magnificient buck standing at a distance, staring at her. They eyeball each other for a few moments, then she hears the sound of hunters (probably including her huband) approaching in the distance and shoos it away.

For me, this scene is a masterpiece of construction. Firstly, it comes at a point when she is beginning to feel the stress of having to deal with public expectations that are entirely contrary to her beliefs. Diana is no longer a royal, and the only concern the royal family needs to have in the matter is the well-being of her and children. However, as the PM Tony Blair points out, the British public have their own way of deciding what the royal family should or shouldn’t be doing. You see the strain building slowly over the scenes preceding it, but her reactions are carefulyl schooled to express only what she wants the people around her to know.

By having her drive her own car, the director Stephen Frears first sets it up so that you begin to see her as her own person, as Elizabeth, and not just as the queen. That distinction allows us access to her feelings rather than just her behaviour. When the vehicle breaks down, she doesn’t just explain what has gone wrong with the car, but also reminds the person at the other end of the line that she used to be a mechanic during the War.

Now, while this is a nice piece of trivia, what purpose does it serve in that conversation? And then you realize that the line isn’t just meant as gentle rebuke to the man who thought that, as queen, she was unlikely to know what was wrong with her car. It is meant as a gentle rebuke to us, who have had the same implicit presumption all along. 

The moment with the buck may be viewed simply as a diversion at that point, but it also sets up a later scene where she finds out that it has been hunted down in the neighbouring estate. (The occasioal snippet of conversation in earlier scenes establishes that there is more than one group trying to hunt it down.) A party of bankers or something, out for a weekend of sport.

She goes down to that estate to enquire and sees it hung from a hook. It is still magnificient. As though all death can do is gnaw away at the corners of its beauty, a little bit at a time. She asks the groundskeeper to convey her congratulations for the kill and walks away. Then she returns to London and makes her first concession to the public demands that she “express her grief in public”.

Now sit and think about what that episode with the buck is trying to tell you. 

Queen Elizabeth II, as a mechanic during WWII

Queen Elizabeth II, as a mechanic during WWII

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10 thoughts on “Freeze Frame #127: The Queen

  1. Nothing in the film actually prepares you for that scene. And it is truly magnificent. That long, long drive through the beautiful estate, and its sublime end. You are absolutely right, that the credit for making this film work goes entirely to Helen Mirren. I wasn’t sure I’d like the film when I picked it up, but she hooked me right from the word ‘go’.

  2. Sometimes it’s amazing how much a scene can convey by doing so little, if you set it up just right. I guess the beauty of writing for film is in recognizing the power of a well-placed moment, and building up to it.

    ~ramsu

  3. Amrita says:

    The Peter Morgan / Michael Sheen combo – making good movies out of absolutely boring storylines! I saw this movie sort of reluctantly because I was sure it was going to be terrible, and it felt exploitative when I read the blurb and blah blah blah and voila! It was one of my favorite movies of that year!

    And then Frost Nixon came about and I thought, “Boring!” and didnt want to see it but then it kept getting all kinds of awards and it had Michael Sheen in it and I thought, what the heck… and what the heck! It was excellent!

    One more time and I’ll give up and admit that these two can do no wrong.

  4. Arcot to Burkit Road says:

    “Now sit and think about what that episode with the buck is trying to tell you.”

    After my song-and-dance on free-spiritedness on your G-Minor post, I came back and re-read this and had an epiphany: The episode with the buck is probably an ode to free-spiritedness and its impending demise. While the free-spirited buck is hunted by two separate factions (one of whom will surely kill it), the queen’s free-spiritedness too is the public’s shooting target. They’re aiming for a kill and slowly yet surely, will have achieved it. It’s this sinking realization — that the magical something they both (buck and queen) share will soon be gone for good — that possibly colors their brief moment of togetherness. (Haven’t seen the movie, but am eager to, now.)

  5. Amrita>> I should watch Frost/Nixon. I haven’t yet heard one bad thing about it.

    A2BR>> Nice take! Now go see the movie and look at Helen Mirren’s reaction to the buck being killed.

    ~r

  6. Bucking the Odds says:

    Maybe looking at “Helen Mirren’s reaction to the buck being killed” is in the cards after all. I brought home The Queen DVD today and intend to catch it this week (along with The Painted Veil, underneath which I found The Queen ironically hidden, but glad I got to dig it up, in any case. Veil, I noticed, is a rework of a Maugham novel, so should be interesting.).

  7. BO says:

    Hey, first things first. It’s incredibly interesting to note how one’s response to a scene — from simply *reading* its description — can shift (sometimes tangentially, often diametrically) when one has actually *viewed* it in the context of the larger movie.

    I have a slightly different take now on the Buck scene, in relation to Elizabeth’s perception of herself and the public’s (mis)perception of The Queen, and, more importantly, Tony Blair’s role in bridging the two.

    Up until the Buck scene, all we (the audience) are privy to is The Queen’s “colonial conditioning” (as you correctly observe), especially in matters relating to emotions. And while you seem to view the Buck scene (at that point) as “simply a diversion,” a great visual, at best, I thought it was a seamless continuation of the “gentle rebuke” you talk about in the previous para. “You are such a beauty,” she gasps, taking us as much by surprise as the Buck ostensibly took her. And that to me was the exact point where she ceased to be the colonial robot she seemed, all along.

    We find out firsthand that the propensity to be affected by soul-stirring stuff such as “beauty” and “freedom” (not just in the free-spirited Buck, but perhaps in the similar-natured Diana as well, contrary to what we’ve been led to believe thus far), and to thereby truly “feel”, is indeed part of her equipment.

    And ironically, the only person to eventually realize this is not her husband, not her son, but her almost-peer in power, Tony Blair, whom she barely even knows. Queen and Blair are both *extremely* skeptical of each other at the outset, and if we follow the “actual” trajectory of the movie (divested from the Diana episode, whose only purpose, it seemed to me, was to swiftly set the movie on its right track) we *see* the turns this wariness takes to morph into trust/bonding, all over one summer’s events.

    Elizabeth shoos away the Buck, whose breathtaking beauty she beheld for the briefest moment, to save it from hunting factions; similarly Blair takes it upon himself (though in an effort somewhat tinged with self-interest) to shoo away the Queen’s old-fashioned obstinacy, if only to rescue her from herself as well as those “baying for her blood” (as he puts it). The way his feelings towards her change since their first meeting, which left him feeling like a skittish schoolboy in front of an all-powerful Principal, is evidenced throughout by mile-markers (Cherie first likens the Queen to his mom, then jokingly calls her his “girl friend”), culminating in that penultimate scene that oozes oedipal subtexts: Elizabeth confesses to Blair that she was “merely a girl” when the burden of being The Queen came to land heavily on her shoulders; the white sculpture of a naked young woman in the background lets us know that he actually begins to “see” her in all her naked vulnerability and, with the distance between them — age, ancestry, authority — instantly bridged in that one connecting moment (my favoritest scene in the movie), they trot off, with the dogs, to talk shop, as peers (but only after she’s had the chance to remind him that yes, he did advise her to good end, earlier, but it’s her job to advice, and his to now listen).

    And oh yeah, Dame Helen Mirren did deserve every inch of that Little Gold Man she won…what a class act!

    P.S: About The Painted Veil, didn’t know about the GG version but this is the one with Naomi Watts. With The Queen out of the way now, turns out tonight’s viewing is a coin-toss away — The Painted Veil vs. Kagemusha (though the latter’s red-maned black horse-shadows on the white DVD cover — starkly contrasted by the explosion of colors in the insert showing Kurosawa’s paintings and describing the work that went into breathing life into them — look far more promising than the ‘cholera-infested Chinese village’ storyline in the former. The choice between period piece and disease may not be that tough, you’d think!).

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