Tuesday, February 6, 2007
Cinema 2006: Representing Royalty
The Queen (Stephen Frears)
In just a few weeks, Helen Mirren will be awarded an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears' masterful film, The Queen. As Kristin Thompson has pointed out over at her and David Bordwell's blog, actors have a much greater likelihood of winning awards if they portray actual people. When the Oscars aren't awarding actors for most acting (which they refer to as "best" acting), they award actors for their portrayals of renowned historical and contemporary figures. For example, the previous two best Actor winners were Jamie Foxx and Philip Seymour Hoffman for their respective portrayals of Ray Charles and Truman Capote. But I have always felt that portraying a real person as opposed to a fictitious character conditions the viewer to rely on his or her own understanding of the person rather than the actor's creation of that character. Jamie Foxx excellently mimicked Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford's 2004 biopic-by-numbers, Ray, but I'm not sure his performance was as amazing as it was hailed. I think somebody who has never seen or heard of Ray Charles may have interpretted his performance differently and perhaps with less enthusiasm than someone familiar with Charles.
This brings up many issues if expectation and anticipation. It's both easier and harder to play a character with whom so many viewers are already familiar: easy because the actor can mimic that person, thus relying viewers plugging in the gaps with their own knowledge of the person, and hard since creating a character beyond mimicking is incredibly difficult due to those very expectations. Even with peformances that are nuanced, they can often be seen as a mimicking act. The best of actors can somehow tap into the consciousness and expectations of viewers while simultaneously and subtly building a real character existing unto itself, independent of preconceptions. Philip Seymour Hoffman achieved this in his portrayal of Truman Capote. But I should also note that performances are not solely dependent on the actors portrayal of a character. No element of a film stands independent of the other components that make up the film; each detail has a context and achieves its effect based on its interaction with these other elements. A film is elevated to greatness when all of these details flow together and improve upon each other. Hoffman had the benefit of not just a great screenplay but a director that was able to use this character as a springboard for exploring many abstract concepts and narrative threads. That film fixated itself within a space and time so vividly and operated fluidly on various levels that it's hard to be aware of just how great it is on first viewing for the reason that it so absorbs you in this character and the world. The point of emphasis in mentioning Capote is that no performance is in a vacuum. It both determines and is determined by the surrounding elements of a film, even in performance-driven films like this.
Now, moving on to a discussion of The Queen, it is impossible to convey the beauty of this film without mentioning Helen Mirren's staggering performance. Director Stephen Frears focuses his film on the week surrounding Princess Diana's death, a week that many of us remember so well. In a sense, he handicapped himself in dealing with something that was such a huge focus of media attention and one of the great media events of the last century. He further put himself at a disadvantage (from a viewer expectation standpoint) by constructing a narrative that conditions the viewer to identify with the one person who was most reviled through the proceedings. And Frears has made a film that not only both shatters and comments on viewer expectations based on media representation, but also makes a profound statement about public perception of any subject as filtered through the media.
Helen Mirren's performance is quietly heartbreaking. It is the result of an actor's amazing technique as well as a director's understanding of the above issues of media and how it shapes ideology. In its depiction of the reserved queen, the film is an intimate account of an individual forced to act within that spectrum, forced to relegate herself to a media image for public consumption, in so doing realizing that the idea of her figure is all that others will see and all that she has become. Mirren and Frears channel these concepts through the media whirlwind of events surrounding the death of Dianna as well as through the contrast of worlds and ideas of members of the British government. The film also focuses on recently elected prime minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who struggles to get through to the queen when she refuses to bow to the people's demands of making an appearance or showing any remorse. Blair is more in tune with how to function within the media realm and how government must cooperate with media outlets in order to have a relationship with "the people." The film's contrast of ideology and communication within the two sects of government - the stagnant old-fashioned ideals of royalty versus the modernized, tie-wearing media soldiers of the "new" Britain - gives the film and its characters so much life, and it does so primarily in its intimate portrayal of a broken woman and how she relates to the people around her depending in their positions. Beyond the ideology and modernization issues that the film tackles, on a more personal level, the film is about appearances and perception. We as spectators have a very intimate perspective of the proceedings as they are seen through the views of different participants. It doesn't do anything stylistically extraordinary and it doesn't judge its characters, all of whom seem to withhold judgements of the the individuals with whom they interact until they are in the presence of others. Through it all, Frears' camera simply observes. The film shows confidence in its story and characters in presenting presents its narrative in a simple manner.
There is a moment somewhere in the middle of the film in which the queen, separated from everyone and everything around her, is somewhere in the hills of her massive estate. No family members, no phone calls or cameras, no portraits of her or previous royality hanging on walls. And in this moment she sees the stag that several characters had been hunting through the film. It looks right back at her and she smiles. Knowing that someone may be nearby to try to shoot it, she encourages it to run away, although it doesn't understand. It's a brief, passing moment, seemingly without any relation to the events of the plot. But in that moment, all of the film's concepts and feelings come together in a series of images of fleeting hope. Blink and it will be gone, and that is precisely what happens. Short-lived as it is, that exchange of images resonates back through what we have seen and what lies ahead in the film. For that one moment in time, there are no barriers to prevent understanding or decide perception. The whole film is in that one moment; the loneliness, the joy, and the bittersweet realization that in just a few seconds it will be over.