The Queen as you seldom saw them

Queen Elizabeth II has to be one of the most photographed persons of the past 70 years. Yet director Roger Michell and producer Kevin Loader manage to portray her in a surprising way in their documentary ‘Elizabeth’.

Since February 2, Britain has been under the spell of the ‘Platinum Jubilee’, the celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s 70th anniversary on the throne. We are inundated with reports, publications, TV series and documentaries about the British Queen, each time trying to show a lesser-known side of a woman who, despite her extremely public status, has an air of mystery about her.

If the documentary ‘Elizabeth’ stands out, it is because the now deceased director Roger Michell (‘Notting Hill’, ‘The Duke’) and his regular producer Kevin Loader choose a special angle: they leave the interpretation to the viewer. “The film was created during the first lockdown,” Loader says.

‘All our plans fell through, but we realized that a documentary based on archive footage was still possible. Michell had been thinking about making a movie about the Queen for a long time. Not chronologically, without witnesses and specialists and a narrator that tells the viewer what to think. A document that makes surprising connections and strikes a witty and naughty tone.’

loose construction

Initially, they launched a call to collect private images related in some way to the Queen. It yielded less than they had hoped, but the researchers still discovered a lot of untapped material in the archives. They molded this into a loose construction of about 20 thematic chapters, each highlighting a different aspect of the Queen.

The essence

  • ‘Elizabeth’ is a documentary by British filmmaker Roger Michell, known for ‘Notting Hill’ and ‘The Duke’, among others.
  • The film looks back on 70 years of Queen Elizabeth in an entertaining and intuitive way.
  • Michell and producer Kevin Loader went looking for unseen footage.
  • The film organizes these images into thematic chapters.

Some have to do with her professional activities (speeches, official visits, her coronation, the weekly audiences of prime ministers), others show her in a less solemn setting (with her family, on the Royal Yacht Britannia, at horse races) or talk about how the Queen is perceived by the outside world. That collage structure is never boring, partly because the makers provide enough variation and know when it is time to change the rifle’s shoulder.

I can’t believe she hasn’t taken a step wrong in all these decades. She knows perfectly what she is doing.

It’s no coincidence that ‘Elizabeth’ starts with Robbie Williams’ song ‘Let Me Entertain You’. “Much of the Queen’s life takes place on stage,” Loader explains. “She’s playing a role, one that’s imposed on her. She never chose it. But she’s been doing it for 70 years now. I’m 66, and I’ve never known another head of state.’

The film mainly wants to have fun and does not dig too deep, although the less beautiful moments are also discussed. One of the chapters, entitled ‘Horribilis’, cites the problems with Princess Anne, the fire at Windsor Castle, the painful situation with Harry and Meghan and especially the death of Diana.

“That was probably the most difficult period for Queen Elizabeth,” Loader said. “But she finally found the right answer, by meeting those grieving people. I can’t believe she hasn’t taken a step wrong in all these decades. She knows perfectly what she is doing. She’s been kind of a morale center for us all along. It’s very interesting to hear all the Prime Ministers talk about their weekly appointment with the Queen. She is very knowledgeable about everything, and she really listens. It says enough that many of those politicians continue to keep in touch with her even after their active careers. The monarchy as an institution has been contested in Britain, but I think you will find very few people who do not have great respect for it. She will be greatly missed.’

The latter does not only apply to the Queen. At the end of September last year, Loader suddenly received terrible news: his good friend Roger Michell had died. He was barely 65 years old. “It came like a bolt from the blue,” Loader sighs. “If there’s any positive side to that sad loss, it’s that Roger had almost finished ‘Elizabeth’. So this is undeniably his film.’

In cinemas this week.

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