The Queen

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

8 February

 

 

Elizabeth II proclaimed queen of UK, 1952

On this day in 1952, Elizabeth II was proclaimed queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. She had actually become queen two days earlier, on the death of her father, George VI, which she heard about while on a tour of Kenya. Proclamations were read out starting the next day. But according to time zone or geographical location, some parts of the new queen’s realm had not completed the formalities until the day after that. In keeping with protocol, the queen took different titles in different jurisdictions; in some she was also the head of the church and was accorded the title Defender of the Faith, an honour granted to Henry VIII by the Pope.

 

 

 

The Queen (2006, dir: Stephen Frears)

A film about the chaos caused by the death of Princess Diana in 2007 – or Diana, Princess of Wales as she was styled. That styling – the all-important comma in her title – is the axle on which this film turns. Was Diana, now divorced from her husband and a commoner by birth, royal at all? What was the protocol when someone of her status, if not rank, died? And imagine trying to make a movie about a topic that dry. But that’s what The Queen is – and in the shape of Elizabeth II we have a hard-liner in matters of protocol being weaned off the idea that she should stick to the letter of time-sanctified procedure and instead should accord Diana some of the outward displays – the flags at half mast, for instance – to show that her regal majesty was hurting too, like the countless thousands who had journeyed to the gates of Kensington Palace to lay flowers after the Princess’s untimely death. Did the queen bear Diana any personal animosity? The film does not go there. Instead it is a valiantly patriotic, almost forelock-tugging portrait of a monarch at a time of extreme duress taking time to swing towards the light. This traditionalism seems strange, considering that the film is directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Morgan, neither of whose resumés marks them out as lace-ruffed courtiers (Frears’s democratic bona fides include My Beautiful Laundrette and Dirty Pretty Things; Morgan has The Deal and at this point has just debuted the play Frost/Nixon, which would later become a film). But maybe Morgan and Frears are out to fell bigger beasts: the memory of Diana, and the monster of touchy-feeliness – not to mention the rank smelling mob – that manifested themselves when she died prematurely. Helen Mirren won an Oscar for her portrayal of the queen, cool but not cold, devoted to her country, iron-bound by duty. Michael Sheen deserved one for his Tony Blair, the prime minister who spoke of “the people’s princess” and then had to work hard behind the scenes to persuade the royal family that the right way wasn’t necessarily the proper way to handle her death. Other roles are less laudable – James Cromwell is struggling as the prickly Prince Philip, Elizabeth’s husband, Sylvia Syms is a fun, pantomime Queen Mother. Morgan’s intelligent screenplay handles the issue carefully, and works hard to avoid the charge of exposition by royal appointment. And he manages it beautifully. When the film came out, The Queen not signified that a sticky moment in the queen’s long reign had been negotiated, it confirmed the monarch as one of the great survivors.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Peter Morgan’s exemplary script
  • Helen Mirren’s tonally perfect performance
  • Michael Sheen’s second of three performances as Tony Blair
  • An honourable though not slavish view of the events

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Queen – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Caligula

Malcolm McDowell and Mirella D'Angelo cavort in Caligula

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

24 January

Caligula assassinated, AD41


On this day in AD41, or 41BCE, the Roman emperor Caligula was assassinated.

His name was in fact Gaius Augustus Germanicus and Caligula was his nickname – meaning “soldier’s little boot” – picked up while he was a child accompanying his general father on campaigns.

Caligula arrived as ruler of Rome by a tortuous, intrigue-filled and bloody route and worked hard once in power to increase the autocratic power of the emperor. This did not sit well with those who still saw Rome as a republic. Nor did Caligula’s spending of huge amounts of money on lavish residences for himself.

Caligula became emperor in March AD37 and was initially popular but by October that year he had started on a series of politically motivated murders (first his cousin and adopted son, then his father- and brother-in-law).

The following year he reinstated democratic elections and embarked on a series of tax reductions designed to bolster his popularity. The year after that the money ran out and he was forced into a series of revenue-raising stunts from unorthodox directions – such as auctioning off gladiators at public shows.

A famine broke out, partly due to Caligula’s incompetent handling of Rome’s infrastructure.

He was a contradictory ruler – he built many roads, aqueducts, temples and huge ships and seemed to love audacious civil engineering projects. But it was when he started murdering members of the Senate – who had grown used to ruling alone after Caligula’s predecessor, Tiberius, had retreated from active life – that the conspiracies against the emperor started to flourish.

These only grew in number when Caligula started to dress himself up as a god and claim divinity. He ordered a statue to himself erected in the Temple of Jerusalem (orders wiser heads never carried out). Tales about Caligula increased further – sleeping with sisters, prostituting them, making his horse a consul.

In AD40 Caligula announced he was moving to Alexandria, Egypt, where he would be worshipped as a god. This seems to have provided the spur to the conspirators, who moved quickly to kill the emperor.

Led by Cassius Chaerea they stabbed him to death in an underground corridor while he was addressing an acting troupe. Keen to destroy his line, they also murdered his wife and daughter. They failed to kill his uncle, Claudius, who became emperor.



Caligula (1979, dir: Tinto Brass)

If you have not seen Caligula, I strongly urge you to do so. Not because it is a great film – it really isn’t – but because it offers the sight of illustrious names of film being made a total fool of.

Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud and Helen Mirren are among those lining up for a drubbing in a film ostensibly directed by Tinto Brass, and ostensibly giving us a straight version of the life of the infamous Roman emperor.

Malcolm McDowell plays Caligula, and you couldn’t ask for a better actor to play a megalomaniac going off his chump. The script is by Gore Vidal, prolific writer of lightly fictionalised histories of the American republic. The ideal man, you’d have thought, to tackle a story about the ancient empire all modern empires style themselves on.

As for director Brass… well, here’s where the smudging starts. A talented director, Brass operated at that time in the peculiar territory shared by arthouse and pornography – for reasons to do with censorship and economics most towns could afford one non-mainstream cinema, which had to do double duty.

The reason why I use the word “ostensibly” in relation to direction and plot is because the film is bankrolled by Bob Guccione, the owner of the soft-porn title Penthouse. And once Brass’s work was done, Guccione took control of the film, hired another director, Giancarlo Lui, to shoot hardcore inserts.

Thanks to constant rewrites, budget over-runs, arguments and walkouts, the film was probably already a mess before Lui and Guccione got to work, but what eventually appeared on the screens is through-the-fingers stuff – the continuity is shot away, the film makes no sense and keeps taking pauses so that people who appear to be from another film entirely can disport themselves pornographically.

When they got wind of what Guccione and Lui were up to, Vidal sued, Brass sued, some of the actors sued too (though it must be said that the sensible ones simply chalked it up to experience).

“Shameful trash” the celebrated critic Roger Ebert called it. He’s being kind. If you want to buy the DVD or Blu-ray (its soft of focus either way), make sure to check out the “making of” interviews made before it debuted and featuring Guccione, Brass, Vidal et al. The gap between their windy guff and the leaden reality is a whole new realm of pleasure.




Why Watch?

  • An eye-rolling Malcolm McDowell
  • The high tone cast includes John Gielgud (killing himself)
  • The glory that wasn’t Rome
  • ”Been there, done that” kudos



Caligula – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014