The Queen (2006)

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31 August 1997. We all know where we were when we heard the news. It was our generation’s JFK. Or John Lennon. In London the scent of the flowers left for Diana at the gates of Buckingham Palace was overpowering, stretching out to the west, as far as Heathrow Airport. Peter Morgan’s screenplay grasps the nettle of this story’s symbolism – Diana the huntress, hounded to her death. The Queen, a hunter, hiding out in Balmoral. And he extends the symbolism to the hunting of a stag whom she finally feels is a kindred spirit and who is wounded by an investment banker on a neighbouring estate and fatally shot in order to be relieved of his agonies by the proprietor’s men. The knotty issue of Queen Elizabeth II’s controversial response to her former daughter in law’s death in Paris is teased out both on this dramatic cord and that between her and her new Prime Minister, freshly elected Tony Blair (and boy was that a moment). “She hated her guts,” declares Cherie Blair while her husband wrestles with a public announcement which will culminate in his famous speech written by Alastair Campbell, with the line ‘the People’s Princess.’ “”They screwed up her life, let’s hope they don’t screw up her death,” Tony says to Cherie. Prince Charles wants a private jet to take Diana home. The family objects. Ironically he fears being shot, such is the growing public anger to which the Queen and Prince Philip appear oblivious on their 40,000 acre Scottish hunting estate. It’s a private family matter as far as they’re concerned. Roger Allam as Robin Janvrin the Queen’s secretary, plays go-between as the staff at Number 10 try to deal with the mounting crisis, with daily newspaper headlines and TV vox pops expressing public distress at the Queen’s failure to appear in London or even to raise a flag at half mast. “One in four,” muses the Queen when she hears how many people want the monarchy to end. “I’ve never been hated like that before.” How the compromise is reached between this model of royal restraint and the arriviste smiling moderniser is masterfully accomplished with a brisk, clean style effectively delivered by Stephen Frears. And, as Cherie Blair whoops, “At the end of the day, all Labour Prime Ministers go gaga for the Queen.” Witty, sharp, smart as anything and goodness what a time it was, as the extremely well chosen archive clips remind us. Helen Mirren won the Academy Award for a particularly well observed performance. Peter Morgan continues to write about the Royals, to some acclaim! And Mirren continues to play the Queen now and then. But the elephant in the room of course is the absent woman at the drama’s centre – and what a shadow the People’s Princess has left. A considerable achievement in all respects.

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My Week With Marilyn (2011)

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Marilyn Monroe took acting very seriously and trained with several coaches throughout her career – she was nervous as a cat about performing and terrified about getting her lines right. She was dyslexic, had Meniere’s disease and and suffered stage fright to beat the band.Her capacity to remember lines was practically non-existent. It drove co-workers crazy – the more takes she did in her quest for perfection, the better she got. And they dropped from exhaustion. She fled Hollywood to take more control of her roles and set up a production company with Look photographer Milton Greene and their first film was Bus Stop – finally Marilyn can act, the critics said. She had wound up at the Actors’ Studio inadvertently following the death of Constance Collier whom she had been training with in NYC. The association caused untold complications in her life. Then a project arose with Laurence Olivier – an Edwardian comedy of manners by Terence Rattigan, The Sleeping Prince. Olivier and Vivien Leigh had played it onstage. Leigh was too old to play the chorus girl on film and Monroe wanted to be taken seriously so it became a joint production of both of their companies with Olivier starring and directing (that was inadvertent, the result of a misunderstanding that everyone was too polite to point out). Monroe rolled up for the English shoot with new husband playwright Arthur Miller, Greene, publicist Arthur Jacobs and acting coach/sycophant Paula Strasberg, Lee’s wife  …  Colin Clark was the son of Olivier’s friend Kenneth Clark and as a new unemployed graduate needed a job. He got taken on as Third Assistant Director on the film that became The Prince and the Showgirl and kept a diary which he finally published as The Prince, The Showgirl and Me in 1995. He later wrote a memoir, My Week With Marilyn, and these two volumes are combined here by Adrian Hodges with a touch of creative licence, coyness and diplomacy:  Clark’s (and Olivier’s) views of Miller (Dougray Scott here) in particular were scathing and Clark’s real-life sexual inclinations were more worldly than those exhibited in the personage of Eddie Redmayne. Michelle Williams gets the poisoned chalice role but manages at times to exquisitely portray the plight of the most famous woman in the world trying to get along in a new marriage with a man clearly using her and a cast and crew (led by Kenneth Branagh as Olivier) who appeared to despise her (they trashed her leaving gifts, not that we see that in this British production). Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) famously said that Monroe was the only one among them who knew how to act for the camera while Olivier ranted at Clark that ‘Trying to teach Marilyn how to act is like trying to teach Urdu to a badger.’ Seeing her luminous performance and his own overacting in rushes nearly finished him and stopped his desire for directing (he eventually made one just more feature and a TVM!). Clark stated that Olivier was a great actor who wanted to be a film star while Monroe was a film star who wanted to be a great actress. According to his memoir he told her this in order to allay her fears in the hostile environment in which she found herself adrift. Who knows how much of this is true? It’s all rather unlikely. It makes for a good story though. Director Simon Curtis manages to get the balance of despair, humour and pathos into this on-set romance and it’s a testament to all the talents involved that it’s more insightful and touching than exploitative.