Fine acting marks The Queen
By Lady Liberty
** 1/2 out of ****
With award nominations dovetailing into a subject matter in which I happen to have an interest, there was no way I was going to miss the chance to see The Queen when it arrived in local theatres. This weekend, it finally did, and I was there at the first available opportunity.
The Queen focuses on a few months in the reign of Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren). Those few months begin with the landslide election of the young and dynamic Labour Party candidate Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) to the office of Prime Minister. The Queen is disappointed, but performs her constitutional duties admirably as she formally requests Mr. Blair take charge of her government. Blair, who follows protocol, kisses the Queen's hand and agrees.
At home, the lives of the two principals of British rule couldn't be more different. Blair, whose wife Cherie (Helen McCrory) is a strong critic of the monarchy in general and the royal family in particular, breakfasts with three boisterous children and urges his staff to call him "Tony." The Queen has her day rigidly scheduled and is treated with distance and deference even by those closest to her. Unfortunately, the two are soon brought together in ways they couldn't have imagined to deal with a situation neither could have anticipated: the untimely death by accident of Diana, the former Princess of Wales.
Blair is wakened in the middle of the night by a telephone call giving him the news. The Queen, who is vacationing at Balmoral, has her sleep interrupted by her personal secretary, Robin (Roger Allam). Bizarrely, both watch the news unfold on television. With another call, they each receive the news that Diana has died of her injuries, and now must determine his or her next step. That's where differences between the two become a chasm Blair in particular fears cannot be breached.
Blair speaks immediately to the people, referring to Diana for the first time as "the People's Princess." The Queen, on the other hand, quietly agrees to allow Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) to use the royal jet to retrieve Diana's body from France, but does little else but determine any funeral will be kept private. She repeatedly points out that Diana is no longer known as HRH (Her Royal Highness), and her death is thus a private matter. Blair, however, gauges the mood of the people far more accurately when he's convinced they'll never be satisfied with anything less than a public event where they, too, can mourn (to his credit, Prince Charles seems to realize that more is required from them than the family is offering long before the elder generation grasps the fact).
As we know, the Royal Family made no comment for some six days after Diana's death. They remained at Balmoral where Diana's sons hunted with their grandfather, Prince Philip (James Cromwell) and the Queen walked her dogs. The growing resentment for the apparent lack of grief on their part combined with the need to express grief of their own escalated matters with the people to the point where even the Queen was forced to pay attention. What few but Tony Blair could understand at the time was that the Queen wasn't unfeeling, but was instead utterly lost in the midst of an unprecedented event for which there was no protocol she could reference and the nuances of which she genuinely didn't understand.
In the end, of course, Diana was given what the vast majority of people around the world felt was her due. She was laid to rest with every bit of pomp and circumstance royalty might expect, and she was mourned by all from those in government to those with great celebrity to ordinary men on the street who wept with their wives and their children when the casket passed them by. Again unnoticed by most was something beyond the funeral and the eventual public words of the Queen, but something just as earth-shattering: the Queen changed.
I, of course, can remember quite well the death of Diana. The greatest surprise for me was the depth of the grief so many of us had. I remember, too, the tabloid headlines lambasting the Queen for failing to appear in public, or to show at least respect if not love for her former daughter-in-law. Seeing The Queen puts some previously hidden elements into place and gives the story an added dimension even to the point of making the Queen a far more sympathetic character.
Helen Mirren is deserving of the accolades she's received in this role. Though not overtly emotional — that's what the Queen has been criticized for, after all! — it's clear in the film at least that she's far from unfeeling. She's merely been trained to rise above her emotions and to present a calm and stoic face to her subjects no matter the provocation. That Mirren makes us actually see that without being told is an indication of just how very good she is. Michael Sheen also gives an excellent performance as Prime Minister Tony Blair, and his resemblance only adds to it.
Helen McCrory, James Cromwell, Sylvia Syms (as the Queen Mother), Alex Jennings, and Roger Allam are all good, too. McCrory in particular does a fine job, but part of that can be credited to her uncanny resemblance to the real Mrs. Blair. Cromwell is fine, but the otherwise perfectly good performances of Syms and Jennings are in my opinion significantly harmed by the fact that neither look much like the person they're supposed to be playing.
Director Stephen Frears (who also helmed the wonderful Mrs. Henderson Presents) does a nice understated job here. The interspersing of real news footage is a nice touch and unquestionably adds to the realism; putting it on the TV currently being watched by the Queen is especially deft. The script (by Peter Morgan, who also penned The King of Scotland), is okay, but I frequently found myself questioning various parts and pieces of it. Though I understand the story was written after a good deal of research and with the assistance of those close to the Prime Minister or the Royal Family, there are private moments that must, by definition, have involved guesswork. While I'm tempted to believe some of the guesses are accurate, I can't quite push myself over the edge into buying into the movie as a whole, and that hurt my overall enjoyment of it more than I'd like to admit.
The Queen is a reasonably good movie with spectacular sets and locations, and some very, very good acting. Anyone who appreciates those things will like The Queen. Those who remember Diana's death and who, even now, suffer a twinge of pain as a result, will also find much of The Queen of interest. On the other hand, those who don't care, and those uninterested in a behind the scenes look at royal protocol, aren't going to find much else of value in this movie. I recommend The Queen, but not without some reservations.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Queen is rated PG-13 for "brief strong language." I don't really see much here that wouldn't be okay for the average viewer of about age 10 and up. But the story itself is sufficiently mature, and frankly the rendering of it so staid (in fairness, that was intentional and it does help to convey the stuffy and stifling history of it all) that children aren't going to enjoy themselves at all. As such, I'd save this one for some evening when it's just the adults who are headed out for an evening at the movies.
** 1/2 out of ****
I first heard of this Oscar-nominated documentary in connection with the discredited evangelical preacher, Ted Haggard. The Reverend Haggard, who founded and headed a mega-church in Colorado Springs, was removed from his responsibilities after allegations he'd used illegal drugs and secured the services of a homosexual prostitute. Before those charges were levied, though, Haggard appeared briefly in this film and then complained about the way in which he was portrayed. With an introductory background like that, how was I going to turn down the chance to see it when I got the opportunity?
Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady determined to make Jesus Camp after they learned just how widespread and how, well, evangelical the evangelical movement is in this country. To tell the story, they chose to focus on a few people who are intimately involved in both one evangelical church or another as well as the "Kids on Fire Summer Camp" in Devil's Lake, North Dakota.
Levi is a young boy who dreams of being a preacher. He's clearly bright and is very articulate. His mother homeschools him, and has obviously done a credible job of it. That's what makes the next scene so disturbing: she proceeds to question him on such matters as global warming and evolution, both of which he categorically denies based on biblical accounts rather than anything relating to science. He's clearly accepted those falsehoods just as well and thoroughly as he's learned how to speak well and with an impressive vocabulary.
Rachael is nine. She's cute, energetic, and talks almost non-stop. In one scene, she's bowling with her family when she wanders over to a young woman at a nearby table. She very seriously tells the woman that God has told her she must speak with her, and that she must be saved. She leaves a brochure with the woman and returns to her family where her father praises her and tells her, "Way to obey!"
Victory (Tory) is ten. She's a pretty blonde who loves to dance. She very soberly tells the cameras that she dances for Jesus, and then admits that sometimes she dances "for the joy of the flesh." She assures the cameras, though, that she's trying really hard not to do that.
Becky Fischer is a youth minister and the founder of the "Kids on Fire Summer Camp." In her interviews, she shares with the camera that the Muslims indoctrinate their children at an early age, and that Christians must do the same. Later, she tells a radio talk show host that if she can reach children before the age of seven, she can turn them into soldiers for God.
Much of the interviews and intertwined discussions are leading directly toward this particular summer's camping experience. At the camp, parents and children spend time in services and seminars all of which are geared to fire them up and to prepare them to overwhelm the political process to "take America back." At one service, small children are sobbing hysterically because they are made painfully aware of the fact that they're bad. They beg Jesus for forgiveness. A small blonde boy sits on the floor and sobs heart-rendingly. Soon, some children are "speaking in tongues." The adults appear pleased.
Eventually, we travel with Levi to Washington DC for abortion protests on the steps of the US Supreme Court, and to Colorado Springs for a sermon by Ted Haggard (who, after gleefully mugging for the camera, gives young Levi some advice on sermon-making). In an interview, Haggard smiles his broadest, toothiest grin and says that evangelicals, if they vote, can win any election (for the record, this is one of the clips to which Haggard objects). Because the filmmakers have given us the occasional statistic throughout the course of the film, we've no choice but to acknowledge that Haggard is probably right about that.
I can't tell you that I enjoyed Jesus Camp because I didn't. I did, however, find it profoundly disturbing. The featured children and, I suspect, many of the others, are smart as whips. They're also utterly convinced that everything they've been told is right, and that anything contradictory must therefore be wrong. They're intolerant of others at best because, as Becky Fischer puts it, they've "got the truth." In the case of those who are homeschooled (one of the film's helpful statistical offerings informs us that the vast majority of homeschooled Americans are evangelicals), they're grievously lacking in science knowledge and the ability to think logically which, in my opinion, seriously hampers both the individual and society as a whole.
Fischer is, unfortunately, absolutely right about one thing: If you can get a child young enough and indoctrinate him thoroughly enough, he's going to grow up just as you intend him to be. And these children are effectively intended to be weapons. Oh, they may not blow themselves up as some Muslim children grow up to do, but I'm convinced the education process and the end goals aren't dissimilar. Both appeal to the highest and the lowest of emotions. Both employ fear and guilt at least as frequently as praise. And both are looking to convert everybody they can, and to subjugate everybody who won't convert to their own religious notions by force of law.
There's one moment on screen that I simply can't get over. It haunts me even several days later. It's a little girl with big eyes and a shy smile who talks of missionaries who are headed out to dangerous parts of the world. In her high-pitched voice, she says that these missionaries enjoy a send-off that includes others gathering around them and chanting, "Martyr, martyr, martyr!" And then that little girl opens her eyes even wider, smiles even more broadly, and looks right into the camera and says, "That is so cool!" No, sweetheart, that is so scary.
POLITICAL NOTES: Any group that's out to infringe the rights of others as a matter of course is dangerous to freedom by definition. The evangelical movement has more than a little power already, and it's likely destined to have more. President Bush owes at least one election to them; many politicians deliberately cater to them both during and after elections. As a result, we must be more vigilant than ever. While it doesn't really matter to me what religion a politician may espouse, it matters a great deal to me if he takes it as part and parcel of his office to make the rest of us follow along. That's what the evangelical movement is apparently aiming for, and if that goal is reached, every one of us who doesn't toe the line will suffer one way or another. Although the Constitution assures us freedom of worship and speech, and even the Bible claims that God Himself granted us free will, the evangelicals obviously don't see it that way.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Jesus Camp is rated PG-13 for "some discussions of mature subject matter." I don't know that kids will really get Jesus Camp anyway. But any adult who's a little leery of those who would legislate morality (among other things) is going to find Jesus Camp a real eye-opener! As such, I recommend every adult see it. Know your enemy. However good and decent these people may be as friends, neighbors, and co-workers — and they are — if you value freedom, remember that their stated goal is to take it from you. And if that doesn't, at the bottom line, make them an enemy, I'm not sure what does.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at email@example.com.