The Queen Redux
Why is Mirren Magical as QEII?

Jeffery Overstreet emailed me a few questions about Helen Mirren’s performance in The Queen as part his prep for a year-end Top 25 listing over at Looking Closer. Here are his questions, and my responses.

This really is a wonderful, career-crowning role for Helen Mirren, isn’t it? What is it, do you think, that she does that sets her apart from so many other actresses?

In general, I’m the wrong guy to ask about that. Historically, I have not been keen on Mirren. I was already a pretty jaded moviegoer by the time The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover came out, so it seemed pretty sniggeringly sophomoric to me. Sadly, the film journals I was reading about that time started trumpeting Mirren as the cat’s meow, so I began associating Mirren, subconsciously, with sophomoric, self-important, sniggering, arthouse enlightenment. It was patently unfair, I’m sure, but there it is. (Her earlier complicity, like so many other actors of repute, in Guccione’s Caligula didn’t help my opinion, either.) So The Queen was like lifting blinders off for me. I’m probably due for a critical reassessment of her earlier work. (I still don’t care for her off-screen persona, though, however “real” that may be.)

H Mirren as HRH in The QueenSome found the symbolism of the stag too heavy-handed… just a simple plot device to help the Queen find some sympathy for Diana. I thought, however, that it might also be cathartic to the Queen, as if the magnificence of the royal history might be the thing that was lost, and that she was mourning for the monarchy and its dignity. Did you find the film simplistic or heavy-handed at all?

If not for the final touch, I think I’d have found it simplistic. (And I wish I could have talked about this in my review, but it would have been a spoiler…) But when she hears of the stag’s death, takes time out from preparations to return to London, and drives over to see the beast dressed out and decapitated… Well, at that point the device becomes not merely a simple-minded means of commenting on the press pursuit of Diana, but also a more sophisticated means of addressing the reverse classism of disdain for the royal family. After all, what has been easier to take potshots at the royalty for, during the last hundred years or so, but those silly royal hunts? Yet in reality, those who have turned their back on the monarchy have just traded in one silly kind of hunt for another. So Frears takes the device, bends it back on itself, and it becomes a unifying symbolism for multiple levels of commentary and critique. Brilliant.

It’s a rare film that shows us two sides of a conflict and allows us to sympathize powerfully with both. There’s something… wow, I almost want to say “Christian”… about this movie. Call it a “work of reconciliation,” if you will. We start out chuckling at the seeming lunacy of the Queen’s formality and the perpetuation of such an outdated institution. And somehow, Frears masterfully brings us into some measure of respect and, for some, even admiration. What was your experience of that journey? How did he do it?

Well, the stag was for me the central device. And given the mythic associations of the stag for Britons, I rather imagine that Frears did intend a spiritual dimension to that as well, which may be some of what you sense. Of course, the other part of Frear’s success on that level has got to be the script, which demands that QEII comes around to respect Blair, too. I dare say that a Godly value—not a Christian one, necessarily, though—is seeing value in things with which we disagree, even despise. Think, for instance, of the way in which Scripture can condemn King David through the voice of the prophet Nathan, and yet see that, given the passion of David’s repentance, he was still “a man after God’s own heart.”

One of the elders at my church is fond of the refrain, “But this is not the end of the story!” Too often, in real life or in our critique of art, we pass judgment on the basis of thinking that we are seeing the end of the story when, in fact, we are not. We are only getting a look at a part of the story, and an intermediate end, perhaps, to that one episode. But according to Scripture, mercy triumphs over judgment—and that’s because Godly mercy really knows what the end of the story is! What Frears accomplishes here is achieving a unique glimpse into two opposing stories—and being merciful to each, through each other.

What could filmmakers… perhaps especially Christian filmmakers… learn from this?

Not being afraid of those moments that require mercy, but without passing judgment. A movie like Alpha Dog, for instance, could very easily have been made by a Christian from that perspective, without changing a thing about it. At the end of that movie, the character played by Sharon Stone rages against God, saying, “If He’s got some great plan for my life, He’d better show me—’cause I’m not seeing it.” And that’s a completely legitimate artistic vision, if we remember that “this is not the end of the story.” Stone’s character speaks from the depths of grief. Alpha Dog, in its own way, tells two thirds of Job’s story—but it doesn’t tell it all, and doesn’t need to.

On the flip side, Facing the Giants was criticized by Christian reviewers because it ostensibly sold the “health and prosperity” gospel. Not at all. Again, Taylor’s spiritual and material turnaround is only a part of his story, and the film itself never promises that Coach Taylor and his wife will never again face trials or poverty.

Christian storytellers should feel equally comfortable telling stories of hopeless despair or boundless joy (as they feel called to do so), without fear of being called a degenerate on the one hand or a Pollyanna (or heretic) on the other. The question should simply be: how well, in 100 minutes or so, can one part of God’s story—the human story—be told? It’s up to preachers and teachers (and parents and critics) to help fill in the rest of the story.

Do you have a favorite moment that sticks with you from this film?

Well, it’s a small one, really—when Charles travels to Paris to positively identify Diana’s body. When he goes into the room, the camera—which has been following him down the hall—comes to a halt outside the door. Charles passes in alone, and the camera, still in the same shot, lingers outside. Frears knows where to draw the lines of propriety, and consciously calls our attention to our culture’s insatiable appetite for crossing them.