Embracing the Melodrama Part II #106: The Queen (dir by Stephen Frears)


The_Queen_movieIt recently occurred to me that, if you were so inclined, you could reconstruct the entire history of the British royal family by watching movies that have been nominated for best picture.

You would start, of course, by watching Becket.  Then you’d move on to The Lion In Winter.  After The Lion in Winter, you’ll enjoy a double feature of Ivanhoe and The Adventures of Robin Hood.  After that, it’s time to watch Henry V.   When it comes to Henry VIII, you’ve actually got three films to choose from: The Private Life of Henry VIII, A Man For All Seasons, or Anne of The Thousand Days.  I suggest that you go with the Private Life of Henry VIII and then follow it up with a double feature of Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love.  After that, you’ll jump forward in time a bit.  You’ll watch The Madness of King George and Mrs. Brown because, even though neither was nominated for best picture, they both feature Oscar-nominated royal performances.  Finally, you’ll watch Chariots of Fire and The King’s Speech.  And, after all of that, you’ll end things by watching the 2006 Best Picture nominee The Queen.

And what a way to end!  The Queen is perhaps the best of the many Oscar-nominated films to be made about British royalty.  While the Queen is rightly known for being the film that finally won the great Helen Mirren an Oscar, it’s also a witty and frequently poignant look at how a group of entrenched people are forced to adapt to a changing world.  It’s a film that works not just because Helen Mirren gives a good performance in the role of Queen Elizabeth II but also because she humanizes Elizabeth, turning her into a character to whom viewers can relate.

The film opens with the death of Princess Diana in Paris.  As the world mourns, the British royal family struggles with how to deal with the tragedy.  Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) worries about the well-being of his sons.  Prince Philip (James Cromwell) is rather haughtily unconcerned with how the general public feels about Diana or the rest of the royal family.  The Queen Mother (Syliva Syms) continues to insist that the Royal Family is just as important as it has always been.  Only Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) seems to truly understand that the Royal Family cannot continue to cut itself off from the rest of the world.  Even though Elizabeth understands that the world outside of Buckingham Palace has changed, she’s still unsure about what her place in this new world will be.

Of course, not only does Elizabeth have to adjust with the changing values of the British public but she also has to deal with a new prime minister.  Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) has been swept into office, pledging that he’s going to “modernize” British society.  While the politically savvy Blair is determined to treat Elizabeth with respect, some of his closest advisers do little to disguise the contempt with which they view the royal family.  This include Tony’s own wife, Cherie (Helen McCrory).

And so, while self-styled reformer Blair finds himself in the strange position of defending tradition, Elizabeth tries to figure whether those traditions still matter in changing times.

The Queen is a film that demands an intelligent audience, one that is capable of enjoying a film based solely on the basis of good acting and intelligent dialogue.  The Queen‘s triumph is that it humanizes an iconic figure and reminds us that even the biggest events are both historical and personal.  I have no idea whether the real Elizabeth is anything like the character played by Helen Mirren but I certainly hope she is.

Review: V for Vendetta (dir. by James McTeigue)


“Remember, remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”

Alan Moore’s decision to want his name off the final credits for the film adaptation of V for Vendetta now makes sense. Moore has had a hate/hate relationship with Hollywood and the film industry in general. They’ve taken two of his other works in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell. and bollocks’d them up (to borrow a term used quite a bit in V for Vendetta). Outside of Watchmen, Alan Moore sees V for Vendetta as one of his more personal works and after reading the screenplay adaptation of the graphic novel by The Wachowski Brothers his decision afterwards was to demand his name be removed from the film if it was ever made. Part of this was his hatred of the film industry for their past mistakes and another being his wish for a perfect adaptation or none at all. Well, V for Vendettaby James McTeigue and The Wachowski Brothers is not a perfect film adaptation. What it turns out to be is a film that stays true to the spirit of Moore’s graphic novel and given a modern, up-to-the-current news retelling of the world’s state of affairs.

V for Vendetta starts off with abit of a prologue to explain the relevance of the Guy Fawkes mask worn by V throughout the film and the significance of the date of the 5th of November. I think this change in the story from the source material may be for the benefit of audiences who didn’t grow up in the UK and have no idea of who Guy Fawkes was and what his Gunpowder Plot was all about. The sequence is short but informative. From then on we move on to the start of the main story and here the film adheres close enough to the source material with a few changes to the Evey character (played by Natalie Portman) but not enough to ruin the character. Caught after curfew and accosted by the ruling government’s secret police called Fingermen, Evey soon encounters V who saves her not just from imprisonment but rape from these so-called Fingermen.

Right from the start the one thing McTeigue and The Wachowski Brothers got dead-on was casting Hugo Weaving as the title character. Voice silky, velvety and sonorous, Weaving infuses V with an otherworldly, theatrical personality. Whether V was speaking phrases from Shakespeare, philosophers or pop culture icons, the voice gave a character who doesn’t show his face from behind the enternally-smiling Guy Fawkes mask real life. I’d forgiven the makers of this films for some of the changes they made to the story and some of the characters for keeping V as close to how Moore wrote him. Once V and Evey are thrown in together by the happenstance of that nightly encounter their fates became intertwined. Portman plays the reluctant witness to V’s acts of terrorism, murders and destruction in the beginning, but a poignant and emotionally powerful sequence to start the second half of the film soon brings Evey’s character not much towards V’s way of doing things, but to understanding just why he’s doing them. This sequence became the emotional punch of the whole film and is literally lifted word for word from the graphic novel. This is the sequence in the film which should resonate the loudest for most people whether they buy into the rest of the film or not.

The rest of the cast seemed like a who’s who of the British acting community. From Stephen Rea’s stubborn and dogged Chief Inspector Finch whose quest to find V leads him to finding clues about his government’s past actions that he’d rather not have found. Then there’s Stephen Fry’s flamboyant TV show host who becomes Evey’s only other ally whose secret longings have been forbidden by the government, but who’s awakened by V’s actions to go through with his own form of rebellion. Then there’s John Hurt as High Chancellor Adam Sutler who’s seen chewing up the scenery with his Hitler-like performance through Big Brother video conferences (an ironic bit of casting since John Hurt also played Winston Smith in the film adaptation of the Orwell classic 1984). I really couldn’t find any of the supporting players as having done a bad job in their performances. Even Hurt’s Sutler might have seemed over-the-top to some but his performance just showed how much of a hatemonger Sutler and, in the end, his Norsefire party really were in order to stay in power.

The story itself, as I mentioned earlier, had had some changes made to it. Some of these changes angered Moore and probably continues to anger his more die-hard fans. I count myself as one of these die-hards, but I know how film adaptations of classic literary works must and need to trim some of the fat from the main body and theme of the story to fully translate onto the silver screen. The Wachowski Brother’s screenplay did just that. They trimmed some of the side stories and tertiary characters from the story and concentrated on V, Evey and Inspector Finch’s pursuit of both the truth of V and his own journey in finding that truth. This adaptation wa much closer to how Peter Jackson adapted The Lord of the Rings. As a fan of Moore I understood why he was unhappy with the changes, but then Moore was and still is an avowed perfectionist and only a perfect adaptation would do.

Critics on both sides of the aisle have called V for Vendetta revolutionary, subversive, daring to irresponsible and propagandist. All because the film dares to ask serious questions about the nature and role of violence as a form of dissent. But the granddaddy question the film brings up that has people talking is the question: terrorist or freedom fighter? Is V one or the other or is he both? Make no mistake about it, V for all intents and purposes is a terrorist if one was to use the definition of what a terrorist is. The makers of this film goes to great lenghts to describe throughout the film just how Sutler and his Norsefire (with its iconic Nazi-like imagery and extreme fundamentalist Christian idealogy) party rose to power in the UK. Partly due to what seemed like the failed US foreign policy and its subsequent and destructive decline as a superpower and the worldwide panic and fear it caused as a result. V for Vendetta also ask just who was to blame for allowing such individuals to rule over them. V has his reasons for killing these powers-that-be, but he also points out that people really should just look in the mirror if they need to know who really was to blame. For it was the population — whose desire to remain safe and have a semblance of peace — gave up more and more of their basic liberties and rights for a return to order. If one was to look at the past 100 years they would see that it’s happened before. There was the regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia, Milosevic’s Greater Serbia, and the king of the hill of them all being Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Inner Circle.

Another thing about V for Vendetta that will surely talked about alot will be the images used in the film. Not just images and symbols looking so much like Nazi icons, but images from the events of the past decade which have become symbols of oppression and censorship. The film shows people bound and hooded like prisoners from Abu Ghraib. The reason of the war on terror used time and time again by Sutler to justify why England and its people need him and his group to protect them by any means necessary. V for Vendetta seems like a timely film for our current times. Even with the conclusion of the film finally accomplishing what Guy Fawkes failed to do that night of November 5th some 400 plus years ago, V for Vendetta doesn’t give all the answers to all the questions it raises. I’m sure this would be something that’ll frustrate them some audiences. So much of people who go to watch thought-provoking films want their questions answered as clearly as possible and all of them. V for Vendetta doesn’t answer them but gives the audience enough information to try and work it out themselves.

In final analysis, V for Vendetta accomplishes in bringing the main themes of Alan Moore’s graphic novel to life and even does it well despite some of the changes made. It is a film that is sure to polarize the extreme left and right of the political pundits and commentators. But as a piece of thought-provoking and even as a politically subversive film, V for Vendetta does it job well. It is not a perfect film by any respect, but the story and message it tries to convey in addition to its value as a piece of entertainment mor than makes up for its flaws. Alan Moore and his followers might not love and approve of this film, but it doesn’t mean the film in and of itself wasn’t a good one. Sometimes calls for literal adaptations of beloved works or no adaptation at all also becomes a form of creative oppression and censorship.