Film Reviews

The Royal Treatment

Mixing the down-under period charm of The Dish with preteen sweetness and some lightly rendered but significant social issues, Her Majesty provides an enjoyable family viewing experience. The period here is 1953, the setting is provincial (and currently very trendy) New Zealand, and the global significance is not quite that of mankind's first moon walk but rather an unprecedented visit from British royalty in the form of dewy Queen Elizabeth II. The monarch's 12,000-mile journey really occurred, and this spirited film by American writer-director Mark J. Gordon uses it as a launch pad for his flight of fiction.

The heroine of Her Majesty is a pretty, nice girl named Elizabeth Wakefield (Sally Andrews), a blond moppet of 12 going on 13 who obsesses over the new queen much as a certain British Indian girl got bent over sports legend David Beckham last year at the movies. She yearns to meet her idol, she wants to become her idol, and in the tiny rural town of Middle-earth -- oops, Middleton -- that's bloody unlikely. Undeterred, she sends a constant stream of fan mail to her regal namesake -- the sixth woman ever to hold the throne of England (and, 50 years ago, still much of the world). While sorting through complex social paradigms with her best friend Annabelle (Anna Sheridan), Elizabeth stokes her daydreams. Again in a very unlikely fashion, the girl's visions suddenly swim into close-up.

The carefully interwoven subplots here include themes of colonial residue, its attendant racism, petty white class issues blown out of proportion, struggles for identity, and cheese. While at times this project's broad, theatrical emotions threaten to curdle and turn the whole enterprise into a cheese factory, there's actually a real such establishment in the movie, owned by Elizabeth's stern father (Mark Clare), who'd like nothing more than to show the queen, and the world, the industrious, community-enhancing nature of his dairy culture. This leads to conflicts with the local ladies' circle, who prey most peculiarly upon the beekeeping fetish of the lusty mayor to ensure the precedence of their rhododendron society on the queen's itinerary. Of course, these busybodies represent the remains of the old white guard. Their pride over European ancestors who fought, robbed and killed the indigenous "savages" requires dismantling, which gives Her Majesty much of its thrust.

The crux of all this is young Elizabeth's relationship with Hira Mata (Vicky Haughton, Nanny Flowers from Whale Rider), a senior Maori woman living a hardscrabble existence in a crude shack beyond the perimeter of polite society. The girl's pugnacious teen brother, Stuart (Craig Elliott), loses his job in a slaughterhouse to a hardworking Maori fellow (Richard Bennett) and takes out his aggression on the native "witch" by smashing one of her few windows. Guilt and responsibility lead Elizabeth into the elder woman's service. Soon the two friends are striding into the misty cinematic valley of the sacred smoke machines, wherein lies the grave of a vital Maori ancestor, never before privy to white folk. With the queen's visit only weeks away, amplified in significance by a possible opportunity to meet the monarch via her pert girls' drill team, Elizabeth suddenly becomes acutely aware of the struggles of her nation's shared cultures.

That all this comes from the mind of Gordon, a mature male American filmmaker, is particularly strange, especially when one considers that the film's cinematographer, Stephen Katz, previously lensed Jake and Elwood smashing up cars in The Blues Brothers. Yet this girlish fantasy wrought by grown men somehow works, right down to young Elizabeth's hopeless crush on her drill instructor. Credit in particular the tight script and the enthusiastic cast interpreting it. While their characterizations sometimes skirt schmaltz, just as the score by William Ross veers perilously close to sap, one nonetheless emerges from the movie with a lively and strong sense of community, which, frankly, feels pleasant -- even when the fledgling director stoops to using the "cute dog formula."

Of course, it isn't all perfect. It takes a while to get accustomed to Hira's aura, which at first seems borrowed almost entirely from Yoda. Also, Elizabeth's brother is written and portrayed less as a bad boy than an evil Nazi; the kid's hideous behavior may have mirrored the times, but contrasted with this film's comparatively light tone, it clunks.

All in all, though, Her Majesty is as important a work as similarly themed projects such as Cry Freedom in South Africa or Skins here in the U.S., and could prove more popular for its crowd-pleasing intentions. Heck, the climax coaxed genuine tears and a sob from this reviewer, who definitely did not expect to be so moved.

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Gregory Weinkauf
Contact: Gregory Weinkauf