MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

Stephen Frears’ ‘The Queen’ and Pedro Almodovar’s ‘Volver’

Stephen Frears and Pedro Almodovar.

Two great filmmakers whose work goes great together at film festivals.

But more importantly, these two non-US filmmakers have once again achieved what seems to endlessly elude Americans working in either the indie or studio systems. They deliver unique, beautifully made, clean, crisp, compelling films year after year. You can hear their voices but their films are not really about them. They are intimate instant classics without trying to be classics or awards chasers. These men are precious, but their work is not.

The Queen is Frears’ latest and it is so simple and so complex and so polished to just the right degree of shine that he makes something so few can do look effortless.

The movie is about, as you probably know, HRH Queen Elizabeth II, the current monarch of England, in the period just before and after the death of Diana. Helen Mirren lives at the center of the work, underplaying the role to within an inch of not connecting with us, but keeps us firmly at the end of the leash until it is time to show us this very reserved character’s heart. But it is the conceit of the piece, written by Peter Morgan, that drives this surprising film experience. Morgan goes inside – without any inside access – the walls of Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street to dramatize his view of how traditional power (the Queen and those around her) and new power (the freshly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair) came together to chart an unsteady course for the future.

(Interestingly, Morgan also has a play premiering this week at London’s cutting edge theater, Donmar Warehouse, called “Frost/Nixon,” which considers the before, during, and after of the famous/infamous interview the duo did in 1977. Here is one review.)

Obviously, Morgan and Frears and Mirren don’t know what exact words and specific actions took place over that long two weeks in 1997. But, like any powerful dramatic look at history, they bring the heart of the matter to life. And like all great art, they have found a theme that will inspire passion in the audience. In this case, it’s what is good and bad and ugly and beautiful about tradition and the nature of moving into the future.

The nature of this conflict is what gives The Queen – quite separately from other small high-quality, oscar-hopeful films like Little Children and Babel – a real shot at a Best Picture nomination from the Academy, a group of mostly older people, many of whom grew up and worked in a more traditional movie era, but who, like Mr. Blair in this film, understand that change has both good and bad points. The Queen respects its subject, even when it conflicts with its subject. And, in doing so, shows a unique degree of respect and even love (though I am sure it was the last thing on the mind of any of the artists involved) to the people who will be asked to embrace it at year’s end.

It is time for Stephen Frears to be given his due as one of the very finest working filmmakers on this planet. Of course, he has had his misses in the 21 years since he burst into the American film lover’s consciousness with My Beautiful Launderette. But how many filmmakers in history can offer a quality resume that has the variety of Launderette, Prick Up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things, Mrs Henderson Presents, and now, The Queen. Those are eight DVD library must-haves in 21 years. And there is great work, however flawed the final product, in projects like Sammy & Rosie Get Laid, The Snapper, Hero, The Van, the grossly underappreciated The Hi-Lo Country, Liam and even the TV version of Fail Safe.

Frears’ work here is sublime and amazingly, not a retread of any of the previous work. There was plenty of brocade in Dangerous Liaisons, but the Palace is a very different place here. There is old English empire thinking, but none of the sentimentalism of Mrs. Henderson Presents. And there is gritty, modern English populism, but not a whiff of the world of Dirty Pretty Things. Frears finds the right voice, a new voice, for every picture. And from the elegance of his recreation of part of the evening on which Diana died to the life of the Queen to the fish-in-new-water world of Tony Blair and his family, Frears makes it all real and intimate and yet a little magical.

Besides Dame Helen’s Oscar nominated performance (no need for qualifiers on this one), there is exceptional work in every other speaking role in the film. Michael Sheen, barely recognizable from Kingdom of Heaven or Underworld, turns the trick as both a comic and earnest Tony Blair (a role he also played for Frears for a Brit TV film called The Deal). His evolution, in the performance and on the page of the script, is a surprise and one of those turns that is so hard to get right, but will not be praised enough.

James Cromwell as Prince Phillip is perfect and, while I was aware that he was James Cromwell, he was an inspired choice by Frears. Roger Allam, who we saw in March in V for Vendetta as a Brit version of a blowhard Fox News host, hits a perfect and uninvasive pitch as the Queen’s personal secretary. Sylvia Syms doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but makes the most of it as the Queen Mother. And in what at first seems like a throw away, but turns into a key role, Helen McCrory walks the tightrope as Mrs. Blair.

The big mistake would be to expect a Big Movie when you see The Queen (and you must). This is a small movie. But what seems to be specific turns universal at some point. And that is the wonder of it. A really compelling story, terribly well told.

And that is a happy segue to…

Volver is Pedro Almodovar’s latest joy to behold.

And part of that joy is that, in the end, it is just a movie. This is not a case of damning with faint praise. Volver and The Queen are both reminders of just how starved we are for top quality filmmaking that is not made with the awards season as its cause for existence.

Simply, Almodovar is a great filmmaker and while he sometimes makes films that really do change your perspective on film, what I love most about him is that he really is out there just making movies. He sees the world through eyes unlike anyone else’s. He plays with genre and tradition and our expectations. But in the end, we watch his movies with popcorn and soda and a box of Jujubes like he probably dreamed of doing as a boy in the rundown dark theater in Calzada de Calatrava and did in his 20s in Madrid.

Volver is another Almodovar mix of street reality and magical thinking. A movie almost exclusively in the world of women, it tells the story of Rainmunda, a woman in a bad marriage with a beautiful young daughter, a sister with a secret hairdressing business in her apartment, and a still painful memory of the loss of her mother and father in a fire years earlier that has left her enraged at her mother ever since. Things take a turn for the weird when her aunt, who has long lost her mental grip, passes away and the question of whether her “conversations” with her dead sister are crazy or if the sister (Rainmunda’s mom) is really a ghost haunting all of their lives.

There is a lot more than that… but to describe another inch of Almodovar’s story would be an act of cruelty. Almodovar works outside of the box and each person should be allowed to discover the turns in that map for themselves. But I will say this… the film is emotional, but it is also fun, wild, busty (Mr. Cruz’s push-up is on par with Ms. Roberts’ in Erin Brockovich), mournful, loving, and loaded with the brio of life.

And Almodovar continues to show more and more skill as a director. There are things here he does with easy directorial confidence that are just great to see… even if most audiences won’t notice. He has the assurance behind the camera that allows him to do things he needs to do, but without ever falling into that trap of doing stuff just to prove he can.

Penelope Cruz, being touted as an Oscar contender, does a terrific job here, going through the wild ride with an assurance and ease that answers the question, “Can she really act?” with an unqualified, “Yes.” And I suspect that this performance will change Hollywood’s view of Cruz. She is more than a pretty face. She can play Everywoman. And she can deliver the full range of emotion.

She is perfectly deserving of an Oscar nomination for her work here. I don’t know that it is a showy enough role to get Academy members to rethink her position in the acting hierarchy. That is a challenge. It feels more like the role that leads to a nomination for the next film. Wondrous groundwork though.

Also delivering big time in this film are the rest of the family… Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas (who you’ll recognize from her sensational turn in The Sea Inside), Yohana Cobo as Rainmunda’s daughter, and Blanca Portillo.

Volver, in the end, is really about the repeating circles of our lives and how we get trapped inside of them and the challenges of escaping to a better place. As much as it is a genre ghost movie and a thriller in a minor key, it is a heart movie. And it is likely to take a small, easy place in your heart, commanding, not demanding a space. A terrific original, unexpected story so nicely told.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon