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Film: Elizabeth: A portrait in parts

by
27 May 2022

Stephen Brown on Roger Michell’s last film

An image from Elizabeth: A portrait in parts

An image from Elizabeth: A portrait in parts

A NEW documentary is true to its subtitle. Elizabeth: A portrait in parts (Cert. 12) is fragmentary, even partial. It portrays Queen Elizabeth II with a wealth of brief clips. It is Roger Michell’s last film before he died in 2021. Although he has made a few documentaries, he’s best remembered for Notting Hill, My Cousin Rachel, The Duke, and other such films.

While he is credited as director, this is primarily an editing enterprise, dependent on assembling footage from myriad sources. Where we see the director’s hand is in the choice and juxtaposition of shots. Thus we are given sound-bites alternating between the Queen’s older and more recent forms of received pronunciation. Ever the cinéaste, Michell frequently interpolates an extract from a feature film to illustrate some aspect of the Queen’s reign. When Diana, Princess of Wales, dies after a car crash and the royal family are criticised for their silence, the director inserts a scene from Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) in which the Tsar and Tsarina and their children are slaughtered.

The documentary is punctuated with quirky chapter headings, such as “Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans”, accompanied by Noël Coward’s song. Then follow scenes from the war film In Which We Serve (1942), the sets of which some royals, including the Queen, visited. Not all sections of Michell’s piece adopt this method, but, when they do, it soon becomes irritating and somewhat puzzling. Is the brief Coronation sequence enhanced by the sight of Elizabeth Taylor being acclaimed by the adoring masses in Cleopatra (1963)?

We get a cursory glance of Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher and Bishop Michael Ramsey at the crowning in the Abbey, while the soundtrack plays a banal love song about a couple becoming king and queen. It is indicative of an attitude that, whether or not one is sympathetic to religion, fails to recognise the importance of the Christian faith to our Sovereign. No mention is made that she is the Church of England’s Supreme Governor. Her Christmas broadcasts constantly emphasise how spiritual beliefs influence her performance of her duties. Television news regularly depicts her attendance at public worship.

Failing to acknowledge this dimension distorts Elizabeth: A portrait in parts into a Hamlet without the Prince. I know nothing about Michell’s own beliefs, but it is worth recalling that his 1995 adaptation for television (re-edited for theatrical release in the United States) of Jane Austen’s Persuasion omitted all the novel’s clergy. Their part in the plot has been taken over by declericalised characters. Sweeping aside the importance that Austen placed on clergy, which reflected the values of a nation, does her an injustice. This is true, too, of his presentation of our Queen. The documentary mainly avoids assessing how heavy is the head that wears the crown, and plays more as a series of photos from a family album.

Elizabeth: A Portrait in Parts is in cinemas from today, and on Prime Video from 1 June.

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