My last two Netflix pics, “Notes On a Scandal” and “The Queen,” were based on stellar Brit actresses: Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Cate Blanchard. (Aussie is Brit, isn’t it? Hope that isn’t insulting.) These women are grown up, NOT chicks, and have incredible acting chops -- everyone agrees. I enjoyed them greatly. But what I want to talk about is the directors, also Brits but male and (ahem) mature but not old, and the voice-overs they did.
On previous voice-overs I’ve listened to, several people commented, maybe not the director but certainly one of the stars and maybe a producer. It may escape the attention of some people that these folks are there to promote and glorify the movie, not to analyze it. They tell little stories and explain a few tricks to make us feel allied with the movie. All of this is fine, but some do it with more skill than others.
These two movies were controversial to the point of being vulnerable to serious social criticism -- even suppression -- so it was particularly important to blunt that sort of inquiry while pumping up the amazing acting and the ultimate idealism of the productions. The director of “Notes On a Scandal,” Richard Eyre, had the additional duty of pointing out that Judi Dench looks ghastly old because that’s the point of the role -- not out of any desire to destroy her image. She really does suddenly look ANCIENT, partly because of puffy wrinkles and partly because of what the director calls “a tobacco-stained wig.” In this country the movie might be more likely to get an R rating because of her character’s constant smoking than for the lesbian subtext. It took me a while to figure out that the silver rim around the edge of the wig was not the roots of her hair growing out, but her own hair peeking through. When one sees her later in interviews, with her own hair, skillful makeup and proper lenses, she looks entirely different. The director emphasizes many times how well he knows Judi, how much they had worked together, how many supporting characters are stalwart British acting establishment “aristocracy.”
The director emphasizes again and again the “terrible loneliness” of the two women and how wrong their choice of remedies is, but motivated for that tragic and none-of-their-doing reason. The plot is simple: Cate addresses her loneliness by accepting a student effort at seduction (this is high school) and Judi addresses hers by trying to seduce Cate. It all goes wrong. Cate seems “cured” at the end but Judi has not “learned her lesson.” The world being what it is, I suspect that in reality this isn’t the end of it. But this is a popular sort of interpretation that keeps out the politics of perversion.
This director provided some interesting nuggets of cinematography: places where the film was reversed, so that the boy seems to reach out his hands to Cate’s face instead of the opposite, or flipped l-to-r so that the character in the shot used is looking at an opening door, or slowed slightly to give the action a floating, dreaming quality, or -- one of the most interesting -- when there are two talking heads, letting the camera drift very subtly and slightly to give it a tension and dynamism.
The director of “The Queen,” Stephen Frears, talked much less about such things. The fascination and potentially objectionable aspect of this film is the impersonation of real people with huge charisma and meaning. Helen Mirren was eloquent in the accompanying interview, saying that she was both terrified and confused by the task at first, until she told herself that she wasn’t being the final word on the Queen, but merely a portrait painter presenting one aspect. The movie begins with her portrait being painted by a totally grounded but sympathetic artist in a moment that blends the private with the ceremonial, “brilliantly” (to use the director’s favorite word) revealing both the Grand Monarch and the obedient and disciplined Lillibet Windsor. This beginning and the crisis also “brilliantly” (really, the word is often justified in this movie) illustrated by the stag (which is like our elk), may have come from either the writer, Peter Morgan, or the director -- I get the impression that there was a very strong and dedicated team at work.
Other “brilliancies” include letting Diana play herself -- she is FAR too much of an icon to be impersonated -- keeping the sons almost unseen, and letting the dogs stand in for both loyal subjects and loving relationship. But the REAL wisdom of this movie is the script which ever-so-subtly identifies the motives and reasoning of people in roles of crushing responsibility. There’s a maturity and calmness to the movie that will keep it relevant for a long time, I suspect. It’s also a career move on the part of Mirren that has guaranteed her reputation. She’s come a long way since she was willing to get naked and dance with veils.
The director of “Notes on a Scandal” noted that in his movie there were simultaneously three actresses who had played Elizabeth I, which is a sort of rite of passage for Brit actresses. (The blonde girl at the end of the movie that Judi embarks on picking up has also played the part, though rather briefly.) The role has been a staple since movies “spoke.”
Since my undergrad education was with Alvina Krause who deeply believed in repertory theatre, I’m always ready to admire the results: the trust, the meshing, the attention to details, the willingness to take small or unflattering parts. Beyond that, these movies have no raunch or violence or melodrama, quite unlike the BBC mysteries that use the same actors. I would like to hear them with a different voice-over from someone who has no particular investment in movies. Maybe an academic or a “public intellectual” -- maybe even someone as risky as Christopher Hitchens. Because I’d like to think about some of the deeper matters, now that we seem to be leaving the awful French anti-privilege theories that glamorize poverty, deprivation, warping, and social corruption. I’d like to hear more about how people maintain their standards, draw their boundaries, and manage to keep on coming, no matter what. These films quietly and exactly illustrate these latter qualities.