Despite aggressive efforts to rid ourselves of it a couple hundred years ago, we remain fascinated by royal rule, envisioning automatic entitlement, gobs of money, frequent enemy-smiting, and leisurely days spent lolling about in an ermine cape while pointing a jewel-encrusted remote at the palace flat-screen. Two movies in current release ponder what might have gone on inside the heads that wear the crown, one queen not yet finished with her story and the other's ending among the most notorious ever.
Stephen Frears' surprisingly gripping The Queen stars Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II and primarily focuses on what went on behind the scenes during that week in the summer of 1997 following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, that led to her lavish state funeral. As the film opens, however, Elizabeth, nearing 50 years on the throne, has just received a mandate for change in the form of new Prime Minister Tony Blair, who she refers to as "a modernizer" (not a compliment) and whose anti-monarchy wife describes the members of the royal family as "freeloading, emotionally retarded nutters" (not much of a compliment either).
Public reaction to Diana's fatal car crash in Paris forces Blair, as played by Michael Sheen, to drag the House of Windsor into the 21st century. "This is a private matter," the queen informs Blair from her estate in Scotland, both unwilling to allow the palpable grief of her subjects to alter longstanding custom and incorrectly gauging the relevance of a woman thought by her and protective husband, Philip (James Cromwell, gloriously out of touch), to be somewhat of a nuisance. But the legendarily cheeky British tabloids are having a field day with the queen's apparent detachment, leaving Blair, on the job only a few short months, to placate his constituents and force the royal family to face the possibly dire consequences of their (in)actions.
You've seen the images --- Elizabeth addresses the world on live TV, Diana's boys trudge behind casket, Elton John warbles in Westminster Abbey --- and you know how it ends, but The Queen's appeal lies in the virtuoso performance of Mirren as Elizabeth, a master class in understatement. We don't need to see the tears plop from the eyes of Mirren's queen to know that she's in turmoil; she makes it very clear that her priorities are her grandsons and her country, though not necessarily in that order, and firmly believes that the way it has been done is the way it should continue to be done. And that's where Sheen's Blair comes in, determined to forge a new path but also increasingly awed by how this formidable woman shoulders the burden of tradition. History may show that by modernizing the House of Windsor, he may have actually saved it.
Parallels could easily be drawn between the former Diana Spencer and the Marie Antoinette illustrated by writer-director Sofia Coppola: both married into royal families as teenagers, both grew to be glamorous trendsetters despite --- or because of --- unhappy unions, and both died violent deaths at a tragically young age. But the only comparison to be made between the meaty narrative that is The Queen and the vapid Marie Antoinette is that I stayed put for the former but fled the latter with a mere 20 minutes to go.
Kirsten Dunst capably plays the doomed Austrian, brought to Versailles at the age of 14 to marry the future Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), then only 15 himself. She quickly learns the formalities of court, but it takes her some time to adapt to her trifling life of parties, fashion, sweets, and scandal. It doesn't help that her only job --- to produce an heir --- is thwarted by her husband's apparent disinterest in his marital duty. Eventually, after more extravagance, heads roll.
There was probably something I should have gotten from all this, but the only thing I did get was bored. Coppola's apparent disinterest in depth allowed her to concentrate on her visuals, so there was plenty to look at; costume and production design are staggeringly sumptuous, so maybe superficiality is the point. But the supporting cast was thoroughly entertaining: Judy Davis as Marie's prim head of household, Rip Torn as the lusty Louis XV, Danny Huston as Marie's brother who counsels the new king on inserting Tab A into Slot B, Shirley Henderson and Molly Shannon as court gossips, and especially Asia Argento as the decadent Madame du Barry. When that Italian girl exited the movie, this one also began to consider the possibility.
The Queen (PG-13), directed by Stephen Frears, is now playing at The Little and Pittsford Cinemas.