Saturday, February 5, 2011

THE QUEEN: Blu-ray (Pathe/Granada 2006) Alliance Home Video

Stephen Frears’ The Queen (2006) makes the case for a great idea distilled into a mediocre film. For starters, its title is deceiving since the narrative focus is not on the Queen at all but on her rather steely reactions to England's collective emotional outpouring over the loss of Diana: Princess of Whales. Shot throughout England for authenticity under an Anglo/French alliance between Pathe Pictures and Granada Productions, the resulting plot is patched together by a substandard screenplay from Peter Morgan that relies heavily on inserted BBC footage from those painful hours of mourning to shape and draw cohesion to the narrative.

Frears employs grainy TV images and 16 and 35mm film stocks to hack together this snippet and sound byte send up. At times the script borders on exploitive as it uses Diana's death for its own critical springboard, weighing the legitimacy of maintaining a British monarchy. Ironically, Frears and Morgan come down rather lightly on Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) - the most liberally painted caricature in the gallery. In fact, Charles comes off as very much the jilted romantic fop and doting father. Camilla Parker Bowles isn't even brought up!

This revisionist take on the royal marriage and its humiliating public split quietly lays the lion's share of blame at Diana's feet, leaving the rest of the film on rather shaky ground. Save Helen Mirren (who won an Oscar for her role as Queen Elizabeth II) who apes the great lady through maximum effort to sublime perfection. Mirren is the Queen in mannerism and deportment. She remains the film’s one saleable and utterly believable commodity.

The film opens with Tony Blair’s (Michael Sheen) appointment to parliament. The Queen (Mirren) reminds him of his temporary place in the general scheme of British politics – a move that wins a rather uneasy dĂ©tente between these two until that fateful night in Paris that claimed Diana's life.

Moments after the first televised news of the wreck in the tunnel, Blair is on the phone to Her Majesty – cautiously inquiring as to the appropriate course of action. Blair advises the Queen on a public address. But she will have none of it. Instead, the Queen goes off to Balmoral Castle, the customary late summer retreat with Prince Philip (James Cromwell), Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), The Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) and the young heirs to the throne in tow.

There, they carry on in the tradition and with the proverbial stiff upper lip. Philip chooses to focus on hunting down a fourteen point stag - a majestic animal eventually hunted to extinction. The script clumsily parallels the last gasp of the animal with that of a waning British aristocracy already in very steep decline.

At first, mass sympathy is with the Royal house. Soon, however, public opinion sours, particularly after the Queen refuses even the most basic acknowledgement of Diana’s importance on the world stage; as in flags flying at half mast, a public address, her return to Buckingham Palace to mingle with the outpouring of tears. This lack of immediate embrace by the House of Windsor, coupled with Blair's branding of Diana as 'the people's princess' transforms the weeping crowds into an increasingly frustrated and angry mob. A poll from the period even suggests that one in five Brits believed the monarchy should be dismantled.

Morgan's script fiendishly delights in exposing a crusty underbelly of tension amongst the Royals; Prince Philip’s overriding contempt for Diana; Charles’ presumed outpouring of loss made ineffectual by an overbearing mother; Cherie Blair’s (Helen McCrory) disdain for the monarchy in a rather feckless curtsy before the queen. This is not a film of performances per say, but a succession of very brief snapshots and fleeting vignettes barely cut and pasted together.

The overall empathy of the piece is lost - or rather buried - under a barrage of news clips. It seems that whenever director Frears and Morgan cannot figure out a way to provide a transitional scene between two others they simply fall back on inserting whole portions of BBC footage to drag the story along to its inevitable conclusion. This oversight, plus Lucia Zucchetti's rather heavy handed editing reduces the figure of the Queen to mere glances and moments of silent introspection sandwiched in-between documentary footage.

This isn’t a great melodrama – just a mediocre one that proves very adept at feeding the loyalist/royalist fan base; both Diana-philes and devotees of the Queen. In the end, The Queen is a curiosity, an anomaly and an addendum to history made from a slightly biased vantage of extensive research, but without the infusion of any sort of heart or soul to make the project come alive.

Alliance Home Video’s Blu-Ray improves on its DVD from several years ago. Although the increase in resolution results in a much tighter image, Frears use of stock, TV and 16mm footage tends to dumb down whatever integrity an upgrade to Blu-ray would have made more obvious. Scenes in the palace are quite startling with rich bold colours. And although fine detail doesn't exactly jump forth from the screen, the resulting image does manage to recapture the look and feel of a film-like image rather than a digital one.

Alliance has kept its original 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. Since this is a dialogue driven film there really are no startling moments in audio fidelity that make one sit up and take notice. Still, this is an accurately repurposed soundtrack that will surely not disappoint. Extras are all direct imports from the original DVD release and include the film’s original trailer, an audio commentary and a ‘making of’ featurette.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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