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Issue Date:  October 27, 2006

Genuine strength

'The Queen' finds it in Elizabeth II, 'A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints' in Queens


When I first heard about The Queen, a movie about Elizabeth II, it seemed like something I could safely ignore since I’m not a great admirer of British royalty. But this new film of Stephen Frears (“My Beautiful Laundrette”) has an especially subtle screenplay by Peter Morgan, which locates the queen’s crisis in the middle of the public outpouring of grief after the death of Princess Diana in 1997, itself coming just at the moment of Tony Blair’s election as Labor’s first prime minister in years.

This combination of events presented a genuine challenge to the House of Windsor, which was both prodded and assisted by Tony Blair, an ambitious and adept politician.

No one could have then known that actress Helen Mirren would someday be available to play the queen.

Director Frears inevitably mixes fact and fiction, making fine use of available film footage from the time of the events, and photographing not only a recognizable landscape like Buckingham Palace but also Balmoral, their Scottish castle. “The Queen” reminds us both of the unbelievably intense identification of millions with Diana and the tabloids’ exploitation of public anger at the monarchy’s aloofness, and finally dramatizes Tony Blair’s gentle, successful urging of the queen to make some minimal gesture of acknowledgment.

The characters surrounding Queen Elizabeth help illustrate the negative influence of family and history on her. Her husband, Prince Philip (played by James Cromwell), doesn’t know how to express his resentment except by going shooting; the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms), though capable of one or two witticisms, seems only half alive; and Prince Charles, Diana’s ex-husband (Alex Jennings), is unable to explain the tangle of his emotions to his mother.

In contrast, though gently mocked by his own wife (Helen McCrory), Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) identifies with the public adoration of Diana, and, though unable to break the protocol of royal independence, sees the situation as an opportunity to enhance his own position. He and Elizabeth enact a minuet of simulated respect for both the public and tradition, one that is deeply comic yet ultimately helps both the queen and the rest of us to understand the deep change that has affected all of English society.

None of this would have worked without Helen Mirren. If the director had only wanted to mock the queen, he could have found hundreds to play the part. Ms. Mirren recognizes the limits of the queen’s understanding, but makes Her Highness’ sudden discovery of a dead stag shot by a careless tourist on the beautiful grounds around Balmoral a revelatory moment. Her deep dignity in that instant confirms the genuine royalty underneath this out-of-date woman who wears sensible shoes and is proud to remind a servant that she worked as a mechanic during World War II.

Director Frears may have wanted to break down the mystique that has long supported the power of the monarchy, but Ms. Mirren both exposes its mechanical supports -- it is delightful to observe characters walking backward in order to leave the royal presence -- and uses her strength to lend continuing power to its mystique. Forced to bow to Tony Blair by coming to London for Princess Di’s funeral, her show of inner strength makes us recognize her as the more powerful figure. Ms. Mirren should win an Academy Award and help bestow some lost dignity to that honor.

Although A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints does little to follow up the religious suggestion of its title, it is a goodhearted coming-of-age drama set in Astoria, N.Y., a neighborhood in Queens, in the mid-1980s. It’s based on the memoir by Dito Montiel. This is also his successful debut as director. “Guide” was a success at Sundance because its exuberant combination of urban realism and lyrical tenderness highlighted the recurrent male theme about the need of the young to get away from home. It’s largely an Italian-American story, with young Dito (Shia LaBeouf) announcing to himself, “I’m going to leave everyone,” while his burly father, Monty (Chazz Palminteri), keeps insisting, “You’re not going anywhere.”

Director Montiel captures the beat of the mostly Italian-American neighborhood, both friendly and noisy, occasionally marred by racially motivated violence. Dito has a lovely girlfriend, Laurie (Melonie Diaz) but even she can’t stop him from dreaming of catching a $39 bus to California with Mike (Martin Compston), a new arrival from Scotland who says he’s a poet. Dito’s father alerts us to possible health problems by insistently announcing, “You know me, Rock of Gibraltar, right?” while his gentle mother, Flori (Dianne Wiest), tries wearily to maintain family calm. In contrast, we meet Antonio (Channing Tatum), who is driven to increasing brutality in response to regular beatings by his father.

Cinematographer Eric Gautier captures the colors, danger and excitement of the neighborhood and uses the spattered window of an elevated train approaching Manhattan to frame a spectacular image of the beckoning skyline. Dito and Mike have a temporary job in the city with Frank (Anthony De Sando), an effeminate dog-walker, but their need to escape the simmering violence of the Astoria neighborhood remains.

A 20-year jump in time brings a climax that suddenly shows an older Dito (Robert Downey Jr.) returning home, summoned by his mother to see his sick father before he dies. Their final exchange is a familiar story but comes through with the powerful directness of opera: At first Monty seems to ignore his son, prompting the latter to cry out, “Daddy, did you love me or not?” In another effective scene, Dito even gets to see Laurie again, now admirably played by Rosario Dawson. Despite a recognition of their former strong attachment, the attractive young mother assures him her heart did not remain broken.

The movie’s narrative structure often seems uncertain, but Mr. Montiel brings a touch of poetry to the dramatization of his story and its classic rock score lends a sense of emotional immediacy to his characters. Because he refuses to sugarcoat his material, we end up sharing the film’s genuine strength as well as its deep pain.

Joseph Cunneen has been NCR film critic for 16 years. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 27, 2006

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