Saturday, December 16, 2006

God Save "The Queen"

Docu-dramas don't usually become frontline movies, and true to form "The Queen" is only available in limited release in most places in America. It is a great pity for this is a wonderfully crafted tale centered around the crisis the monarchy faced due to it truculant and inadequate response to the death of Diana. The movie has an admirably clear focus on one slice of time in 1997 from just before until, at the very end of the movie several months after the death and funeral of Diana. Splicing together actual footage from the period with first rate acting, especially by Helen Mirren who should certainly be crowned queen of the Oscars for this performance, this movie tells a story and tells it well. It is a story about how time had almost passed the British monoarchy by, when it came to judging the importance of public opinion, especially in a quasi-democracy. The movie also proves to be an excellent civics lesson for those who don't understand that the United Kingdom is not the same sort of democracy as we are-- they don't even have a Constitution like ours. Indeed, one could say they are caught between their rich past and the need for modernization, with Tony Blair being seen as a sensible voice for modernization yet one that has continued to have great respect for the monarchy and its traditions.

How then does one prod a queen into action? How does one make a queen see that times have changed and she needs to make a public response to Diana's tragic death? The inner workings of Downing Street and even more the inner life of Buckingham Palace and Balmoral are put on display here for all to see, and it is a very revealing tale indeed. The royals, living in isolation, being the guardians of ye olde monarchial tradition, think that public displays of emotion are gauche and inappropriate for a royal figure. They have been taught to be Stoic, and to let their own personal feelings be a private matter. They desire to live and grieve privately. They had not counted on a huge public outpouring of love and grief for Diana. Indeed, they had wanted only a private funeral with no cameras watching, as had the Spencers originally, Diana's family.

I must admit that neither had I. Diana died at almost exactly the same time as Mother Teresa, and I found it very odd that someone who devouted her whole life to charitable service could be eclipsed in the world imagination by a party girl who also did charitable work off and on for a few short years, all the while mimicking her unfaithful husband by being likewise unfaithful, finally precipitating divorce outright. Of course most public sentiment was with Diana. She was seen as one who was driven to bad behavior by the chilly reception she received within the royal circle. The Queen and the royal family, with the exception of Charles, are portrayed
as having been mightily annoyed by Diana's bad behavior and not surprisingly rather aloof when it came to grieving.

Throughout this movie I caught myself wondering what the real Queen would think of this film if she saw it. It is clear that Helen Mirren embodies what we can observe from the outside of what the Queen is like, right down to her small mannerisms and of course her royal arrogance. She really believes in the divine right of monarchs. What I could have wished for in this movie is a little less about being on holiday in Balmoral (where deer stalking is the big attraction) and a little more about the Queen's own spiritual and ethical life and convictions. She is after all not merely the defender of the monarchy but the defender of the faith. Charles in this movie is portrayed as someone who genuinely did love Diana, appreciated her love for and devotion to her children, but still has a hard time standing up to his mother when it comes to things like flying on a royal plane to be at the hospital where Diana died in Paris. His character is underdeveloped in this movie and it is a pity.

The core of the movie focuses on the relationship between Tony Blair, who has to serve as the gentle but persistent catalyst, and the Queen herself. All the other figures in the movie are peripheral to this central focus, and this allows for great clarity. What will the Queen finally decide? Will she indeed allow the flag to fly at half-mast over Buckingham palace, which had not even happened when her father died? Would she come down to London from Balmoral and make a public statement? Would she meet the people who were putting thousands of bouquets of flowers at the doorstep of Buckingham palace? Most of all, would she change, a little and 'modernize'?

I will not spoil the movie for you, which is less than two hours in length. I will only say, you will never see a more convincing acting job than Helen Mirren does in this film, and she deserves every award she wins for this performance. This by itself makes the movie worth watching. But we also have here a cautionary tale that raises the deeper question--- What is the cost of modernization on our cherished traditions, including our religious ones? Of course I could mention Christians and churches who are praying fervently that next year will be 1954 all over again, but it is so not happening. Culture and civilization is a living thing that is always in the process of change. So in this movie we are not only asked to ponder whether we want to say "God save the Queen", but whether indeed God at times must save the Queen from herself and her traditional instincts.


Tim Chesterton said...

And let's also not forget that, if it is true that the Queen does indeed believe in the Divine Right of monarchs, here in North America we have an equally absurd belief in the Divine Right of corporations.

Ben Witherington said...

For sure.....which tells us a lot about why we are still in Iraq, where there are currently several thousand U.S. contractors making money off all of us.


Ross said...

Hi Ben

I was living very near Balmoral when Diana died and still remember hearing of her death on BBC radio 4. When I mentioned it in church at the early morning service, I was suprised at the strength of people's reactions. It wasn't just the Queen, but many of us in the church that were caught off guard by the reaction. We had a special service to enable people to express their grief. It was on the Friday night and it was packed. I have often asked myself why we all felt so moved and can only think that TV makes public people part of our own lives. I personally never particularly liked Diana as a public person, but I couldn't prevent a tear when watching her funeral.

Ben Witherington said...


Well of course it is always tragic when someone so young and alive is killed. And of course we respond to beauty and vulnerability as well, especially when it disappears suddenly. I think there were a combination of things involved, and surely one of them was that she was 'the people's princess'. She gave hope to many people that they could aspire to be something special and royal... or at least that's how I've heard it expressed.



Mark Porter said...

I'm wondering what about the British monarchy you would say is in need of 'modernisation'? Speaking as a Brit, I guess I've never quite understood the Monarchy - that there are these people that somehow seem to end up with a lot of money and status due to a family succession - but on the other hand, I don't think one can help but love and respect the Queen and a lot of the traditions and values that are bound up in her role. What are the key issues for you?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Mark:

For me actually the key issue is that she is the Defender of the Faith. The Monarch long since abdicated the role of actually ruling the country. As Defender of the Faith, she has an important role in preserving Christian traditions and values as a part of British culture and history. I think that for the most part they are good value for money but of course if the Queen were a renegade that would be different.



Ben Witherington said...

The 'idea' of a closed canon is not an 'idea', it was a church decision in both the east and the west in the late fourth century A.D. You can read about it in my The Gospel Code, or if you want the whole nine yards read either F.F. Bruce's The Canon of Scripture, or the same title by B.M. Metzger.



Terry Hamblin said...

I think that the Divine Right of Kings went out with the Stuarts. Despite a brief flirtation with regal authority after the Restoration, killing King Charles the first had set democracy in train in Britain and folowing the Glorious Revolution in 1688 there was no going back. Of course, the British democracy did not get universal suffrage all at once, any more than the American one did, though in some respects it was (and still is) ahead of America.

What the Queen has is belief, not in the divinr right of kings, but that the vows that she made at the Coronation should be kept. I have no doubt that like her father she has a sincere Christian faith, and she sees her role as a servant of the people. She does not see it as her job to rule, but she takes seriously her job to advise.

The acting plaudits should also go to James Cromwell who does an excellent impersonation of Prince Phillip. (Whose sense of humor chose the namesake of the regicide for the role?)

The most telling point of the film was when Helen Mirren tells Tony Blair that his time for disappointing the people will come. How prescient!

Ben Witherington said...

Actually I think Queen Elizabeth does believe that God chose her family and her to be monarchs. She is pretty emphatic about the motto you know-- "God and my right".


Terry Hamblin said...

But that is not the same as the Divine Right of Kings, which was about being anointed to rule, like King David. King Charles the first though that. Queen Elizabeth believes that she has be chosen by God to reign in Great Britain and the Commonwealth. This is not about ruling. She is the symbolic head of the people of Great Britain and Northern Irland, and she recognises that she reigns with consent. She raised no objections to the idea that Australia might be come a republic.
She sees reigning as a responsibility rather than a means of exercising power. She has a duty to protect the people against the executive. Her very presence restrains the executive.

Ben Witherington said...

Good explanation Terry.

RC said...

i always appreciate your film thoughts they are very insightful...

i forgot about the mother teresa/princess di connection...i too was much more thoughtful interms of mother teresa's death.

redtown said...

The late Quentin Crisp spoke truthfully, if bluntly, that Princess Diana's own fast and shallow lifestyle contributed to her demise: "She could have been Queen of England -- and she was swanning about Paris.   What disgraceful behavior. Going about saying she wanted to be the queen of hearts. The vulgarity of it is so overpowering." (Atlanta Southern Voice, 1 July 1999).

The "queen of hearts" remains the poster girl of superficial culture and narcissistic celebrities who go emoting about everything and nothing of substance.  But who was she really?

Both Diana and her brother, Charles Spencer, suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder caused by their mother's abandoning them as young children.  A google search reveals that Diana is considered a case study in BPD by mental health professionals.

For Charles Spencer, BPD meant insatiable sexual promiscuity (his wife was divorcing him at the time of Diana's death).

For Diana, BPD meant intense insecurity and insatiable need for attention and affection which even the best husband could never fulfill. 

From a BPD perspective, it's clear that the Royal family did not cause her "problems". Rather, she brought her multiple problems into the marriage, and the Royal family was hapless to cope with them.

Her illness, untreated, sowed the seeds of her fast and unstable lifestyle, and sadly, her tragic fate.

see-through faith said...

Helen Mirren is a wonderful actress. I doubt this film will be shown in Finland - but maybe on TV at a later date :)

what is a spin off about the defender of the faith ... is that Charles wants to be defender of faiths. The right to believe whatever you want to. Post-modernism values. It will be interesting to see how this pans out

My understanding of the Queen is that she is a believer - albeit in a stiff upper lip and tradition kind of way - but Charles?

And what will the impact (if any) of this be for the UK in the long run?

I'm not in total agreement with the previous comment. Diana had her problems but she walked into a marriage with a man whose heart was elsewhere and who didn't think it a problem that he carried on his long love affair. To have married Camilla back then would have cost him the crown (and caused her divorce) but that surely would have been the more honourable thing to do - assuming that he was indeed unwilling to let go of the relationship.

the question of a monarch marrying a divorcee was the cause of Elizabeth's father becoming King in the first place. So abdication or passing the crown onto his legitimate heir might still be feasible. I'm not so interested in the royal family - but their life styles do give us cause to look at morals and ethics of our 'spiritual' leaders and their families. Which is - to date- what the Queen (Charles less so) represents to many British people.