Elizabeth: A Portrait in Part(s) by Roger Michell (dir) - review by Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad

Seventy Years On

Elizabeth: A Portrait in Part(s)


89 minutes

Elizabeth: A Portrait in Part(s) portrays the Queen by supercutting her into parts or particles, then reassembling the fragments into a jerky blitz of images and overlapping soundbites. The result is hyper-kinetic: seventy years of history are compressed into ninety minutes that hurtle by frenetically, even though this royal life has proceeded at a slow, stately pace, implacably governed by ritual, routine and numbing repetition.

Among the Queen’s many old-fashioned virtues, perhaps the most estimable is her capacity to endure tedium. In Roger Michell’s film, a woman hired as her stand-in during rehearsals for public events comments on the strain of protracted smiling, which paralyses your face in a painful rictus. Michell’s anthology of clips allows occasional spasms of spontaneity. The Queen bites her lip and lets loose a tear as the royal yacht Britannia is decommissioned. At the races she cheers on the horses with wildly waving arms like a tic-tac man in a floral hat, and when a courtier hands over her sweepstake winnings, an existential frisson is audible in her startled ‘Oh’: her image on the banknote attests to its value, but to her it’s worthless because she will never be able to use it in a shop.

The Queen spends most of the film waving from balconies or from vehicles that travel through crowds at a caterpillar’s pace, since ‘I have to be seen to be believed’ is one of her mottoes. Like the excited woman at a Buckingham Palace garden party who identifies her as ‘that orange dot on the steps’, we have all seen her, or at least caught a distant glimpse, but does the icon or idol share our capacity for devout belief? Sailing under Tower Bridge, she glances at what she calls ‘this dirty commercial river’ and remembers that it was described by Winston Churchill as ‘the silver thread that runs through British history’; suppressing a giggle, she wonders whether her own view of it might have been ‘too mundane’.

‘The crown’, the Queen is heard saying, ‘is an idea not a person.’ At the state opening of Parliament this May, the jewelled ornament – propped on a cushion beside the Prince of Wales, who was relegated to the consort’s chair – deputised for the absent wearer. If we had a written constitution, wouldn’t the document do just as well? No, we want the idea to be personified, though the headdress is a source of headaches to the encumbered incumbent. Eyeing the crown, the Queen remarks on its weight, says she’s not sure ‘which is front and which is back’, and confides that when it’s in place ‘you can’t look down or your neck would break and it would fall orf’. It’s a prop, she’s a performer, and the mock-medieval ceremonies in which she takes part are an exercise in set dressing.

The techniques of collage or montage employed in Elizabeth: A Portrait in Part(s) were modernist inventions, implicitly ironic in their demonstration that the settled world can be broken down and pieced together in a different way. The film’s juxtapositions therefore have a critical edge. We first see the Queen recording a Christmas message; she scans the script, then removes a page and leaves it suspended, waiting – with a casually innate sense of entitlement – for someone to take it from her, which, after an awkward pause, David Attenborough deferentially does. This is followed by Olivia Colman re-enacting a similar scene in The Crown, except that in an outtake Colman yawns and apologetically grins at the television crew, shedding the persona as the Queen can never do.

Snippets from expensive cinematic epics tease the more amateurish local arrangements for royal visits: Elizabeth II shaking hands on provincial away days is upstaged by Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth I lolling in a gilded barge, though both are put to shame by the glitzy imperial pomp of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra arriving in Rome. We also see Claude Rains eloquently adoring the unresponsive Sphinx in the film version of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, which suggests that the Queen, like Oscar Wilde’s inscrutable manservant, is a sphinx without a secret. Even more dangerously, newsreels of happy crowds crammed outside the gates of Buckingham Palace are spliced with a scene from Pudovkin’s The End of St Petersburg, in which Bolsheviks storm the Winter Palace; then an excerpt from Nicholas and Alexandra shows the last tsar and his family being shot in a cellar. The musical soundtrack adds a wordless comment when newsreels of National Front demonstrations are underlined by a piano that very deliberately picks out the notes of ‘Britons never never never shall be slaves’.

Jubilees are meant to be jubilant, but Michell’s film concludes with a montage that wistfully or ruefully reverses time, taking the stooped elderly Queen back to her skipping youth and leading us all on the same nostalgic journey. A little girl in a school classroom touchingly asserts that Her Majesty ‘looks after the country, and helps us all’. At the very end, the teenage Princess Elizabeth maternally addresses her future subjects in a radio broadcast. ‘Good night, children,’ she says, ‘and good luck.’ Although monarchy infantilises us, the soothing wishes are welcome at present. Unfortunately, when the Queen is no longer able to tuck us in, we may need more than luck.

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