by Roderick Conway Morris

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Two filmakers square up to history

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 12 September 2006


Seasoned theatergoers will not be surprised that the brilliant young actress who spun naked across the London stage in Shakespeare's 'Troilus and Cressida' in the 1960s is still not averse to taking risks.

Dame Helen Mirren has described her role as Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears's 'The Queen' as 'the most frightening, intimidating' that she has ever played. Although dealing with events that took place nearly a decade ago, this absorbing, funny and sometimes moving film delivers an unexpected political punch.

The movie zooms in on the most disastrous week of what the queen herself was to describe as the 'annus horribilis' of 1997, between the death of Princess Diana and her funeral. The action shifts back and forth between Balmoral in Scotland, the customary summer royal residence, and 10 Downing Street, over which Tony Blair presides as the new prime minister, having won a landslide electoral victory in May of that year. And it is interspersed with contemporary news footage of the outpouring of public grief at the princess's death.

At the beginning of the film, the queen is shown sitting in her state robes for a formal portrait. Seen in profile, the image of the postage stamp, she turns to face us. The iconic mask morphs momentarily into the woman of flesh and blood, then freezes. This is a master stroke of micro-acting, direction, cinematography and editing. From this defining moment, Mirren never falters, and she commands every scene she appears in.

The heart of the drama revolves around the refusal of the queen to issue a formal statement about the death of Diana and to curtail her stay at Balmoral and return to Buckingham Palace in the days before the funeral. She is of the old school and explains to her first minister, who appears to her at this stage virtually as some form of extraterrestrial: 'That is the way we do things in this country, quietly and with dignity.'

Blair (convincingly played by Michael Sheen without descent into mimicry), with the help of his spin doctors, responds to and in some ways stokes the public mood by concocting the famous 'People's Princess' speech. As, according to the polls, public estimation of the royal family and of the queen herself plummets (a hiccup, as things turned out in the longer term) the ratings for New Labour go sky- high. During those heady days, Blair really did seem to have the magic touch, but at the same time we see the Labour spin-machine in action, becoming more and more intoxicated by its own success. Nine years on, the period depicted looks almost like an age of innocence.

Mirren's lead in the best actress stakes might have been unassailable but for Carice van Houten's performance in Paul Verhoeven's also in- competition film, 'Zwartboek' (The Black Book). The film marks Verhoeven's return to his native Netherlands after directing a series of Hollywood blockbusters, including 'RoboCop,' 'Total Recall,' 'Basic Instinct' and 'Starship Troopers.' This project, which he has been working on for many years with the scriptwriter Gerard Soeteman deals with the Dutch Resistance in World War II.

This film can hardly fail to provoke some soul-searching and controversy in the Netherlands. The black book of the title refers to a record kept by a real-life Dutch lawyer, who negotiatedbetween the Nazi army command and the Resistance during the war to try to minimize the bloodshed, and who was murdered soon after the liberation.

This book has never been found, but almost certainly contained details of collaborators and opportunists who never stood trial for serious crimes while innocents were wrongly accused and even lynched.

The Dutch resistance movement was one of the most thoroughly penetrated by German intelligence, partly on account of the existence ofmany Nazi sympathizers among the local population.

But there were also examples of extraordinary courage and self-sacrifice.The beautiful and charismatic van Houten plays the Jewish singer Rachel Steinn, who adopts the identity of Ellis de Vries after her hiding place is destroyed. She is the only survivor of a group of Jews attempting to flee across the lines into the nearby Allied zone. She joins the Resistance, manages to use her charms to seduce a senior German officer Ludwig Müntze (played by Sebastian Koch), and to get a job as a secretary at the Nazi headquarters in The Hague, where she acts as a spy.

Rachel Steinn is inspired by several members of the Resistance, one of whom was killed by the Germans and another who was murdered by her former comrades after the war. Müntze is based on a German officer whose humanitarian conduct spared him prosecution after the end of thewar. Almost all the other characters are based on real people, and the action on events that actually took place.

Verhoeven has made a spectacular, gripping film clearly intended to reach the widest possible audience. Everything, from the acting of the entire cast to the recreation of the period, is first class. But at the same time, he has produced a nuanced and disturbing viewof a tragic period, one that leaves us with plenty of food for thought, and that challenges us to reflect on how we might behave in similar circumstances.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024