Saturday, September 30, 2006

Just saw a great movie--The Queen, directed by Stephen Frears from ascreenplay by Peter Morgan, and starring Helen Mirren as HM Elizabeth II and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair. (Sheen's had some practice in the role, having already played Blair in The Deal, a British TV film, also directed by Frears and written by Morgan, about the schism between Blair and his rival and designated successor Gordon Brown.) The movie opens with Blair's election as Prime Minister and deals with the events following the death of Diana, when the grief-stricken British public seemed poised to turn on the royals over what was seen as their display of unfeeling coldness. It fell to Blair, with his grasp of the common touch and his political sureness, to "save these people from themselves" and salvage the image of the Queen and her family, described in the movie by Cherie Blair (Helen McCrory) as "a bunch of freeloading, emotionally retarded nutters." It's not a definition that the movie actually contradicts, but Mirren's wonderful performance gets you to feel for the human being trapped beneath the repressed, frozen-faced surface--the rather sweet, surprisingly common-sensical woman who was raised to be a freak, and who doesn't understand that the world has changed in a way that makes her display of what she thinks of as the proper standards makes her seem like an ogre. And besides that, whatever you think of the monarchy or Diana, the movie itself is, despite its subject matter, ,just funny as hell.

As a political movie, The Queen also has a special poignance right this minute, because of the political implosion of the actual Tony Blair. In the concluding scenes, the Queen tells Blair, who's surprised himself as much as anyone by emerging as her champion and defender, that she knows why it pained him so to see the public viciously turn on her; it's because, she says, as a fellow leader, he was afraid that it might someday happen to him--"And it will." The moviemakers couldn't have known when they were filming that their picture would open in America just days after Blair delivered his farewell address, but they did know that the prophecy they'd given the Queen to speak had already come true. Listening to Blair's last address to the Labour party's annual conference as party leader, it was hard not to remember those half-enthralling, half-embarrassing joint news conferences on Iraq where Bush would grumble and mumble and do his man-of-no-words act, and then Blair would take over, as if he were translating for Koko the Talking Gorilla, and spin Bush's monosyllabic nonsense into verbal gold. You didn't have to find his arguments for the war convincing to feel a tinge of jealousy towards the people who had a leader who could at least make an argument, and was willing to act as if he wanted to try to convince you, not just declare himself the Decider and call you a traitor if you didn't like it. Iraq wasn't Blair's mess, yet he worked harder at actually justifying it than all the people who were really responsible for it put together.

In The Queen, Cherie Blair, the ardent anti-royalist, looks at her husband mooning after Her Majesty and laments that all Labour PMs "go gaga" over the royals eventually. Maybe, but Blair also has a pattern of enhancing his own power by attaching himself to the biggest dog in the yard and making himself seem indispensible. Early in his time as Prime Minister he was able to do it with Elizabeth, he quickly did it at the international level with Bill Clinton, and after Clinton was gone, he surprised everyone with a capacity for being surprised by doing it with Bush. I don't know if it was inevitable that this habit would ultimately bring him to grief, but it did, and it happened when he chose to buddy up to someone with whom he could scarcely have had less in common as a person or as a leader--someone who practically makes Elizabeth look like his long-lost twin by comparison. The events depicted in The Queen were the making of Blair, but watching the movie, you may feel that you're watching the man rehearse the moves that would ultimately lead to his downfall.

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