Monday, August 6, 2007

The Queen. Mother.

Queen Elizabeth II was always a presence in our house. I can recall my mother's tales of how her mother would teach them proper tables manners with the admonition that they needed to know how to eat properly with the Queen.

Should the occasion arise, I have no doubt my mother would comport herself with her usual dignity.

I on the other hand have become fatally fond of slurping hot beverages. I doubt I'd survive tea.

Of course, my mother's tales formed their own admonitions for us kids. Unspoken behind the story of how SHE was taught lay the assumption that, as unlikely as it sounded, being prepared for royal dinners was pretty much the foundation upon which Western Civilization rested.

Somehow, to an eight-year-old in Prince George, it never actually sounded all that unlikely. My mom can be awfully convincing.

Steph has accused me of radical monarchism. I deny the charge, of course, but I do admit that I am awfully fond of the Queen. I think she's just great. Respectable. Strong. Really, everything the Commonwealth needed over the last 55 years in a head of state. Maybe not the greatest mother ever (if one judges a parent by the children, as one inevitably must), but well, "great", "respectable", and "strong" don't mean "perfect", now do they?

No they do not.

You know her coronation took place just two months after her grandmother dropped dead? Good old Queen Mary insisted the ceremony not be delayed on account of her death. No sense making a fuss over what you can do nothing about.

I may be getting ahead of myself here. But we watched Helen Mirren's astonishing performance in Stephen Frears' The Queen last night, and such viewing naturally leads to speculation on things royal.

As Steph said, you have to respect a film that can make you feel at least a little sorry for Prince Charles.

It's okay, the feeling passes quickly enough.

The feeling that remains, however, is "I bet my mom LOVED this. I bet she ate it up."

Of course the film is primarily about the astounding performance from Mirren. At one point the Queen has to get out of a vehicle into a reasonably inconvenient amount of water. Steph stopped the film to turn to me and say, "I'm just now realising that that's not ACTUALLY the Queen."

In fact, for just a second, in my mind, I was thinking, "Man, I'm glad I'm not the AD who had to tell the Queen they needed another take of her stepping into that cold water."

And then, once we'd settled down, I thought, "You know, I bet the Queen would be a trouper about it."

Everyone knows it's a tremendous performance. There would have been riots if Mirren hadn't won the Oscar for that performance.

Well-mannered, stoical sorts of riots, of course, but still. Riotish.

But the film itself is likewise tremendous. You MIGHT say the bit with the stag teetered on the edge of overwrought, but I'm more than willing to give that to Frears. It is more than made up for by the moment when the Queen at last confronts her grieving, hysterical public. I'm not ashamed to say I misted up then.

Why? Helen Mirren manages a stiff Queen smile and folks curtsey to her. The music doesn't swell up all grandiose and stuff. Nobody's crying out in unabashed agony. It's a small, private moment. And yet, in that moment I felt the story touched on a notion, a feeling of necessity that was at once beautiful and tragic. That a woman can devote her life to something with no expectation of personal satisfaction (beyond being the richest woman in the world, of course -- THAT must be rough), and unexpectedly receive a quiet kindness from a small group of strangers. What Mirren really accomplishes here is to show us how much that little, little thing MEANT to her character, without needing to resort to any clumsy tricks. Just that stiff yet warm smile.

To see that reached inside me.

I believe in stoicism. That will surprise (and most likely amuse) folks of my casual acquaintance -- I know I come across as pretty much a loud-mouthed goofball, and perhaps this is a case where I'm just not capable of practicing what I preach. But I really truly believe that standing firm in the face of pain and enduring is morally healthy. Plain and simple: quiet, unobserved, unshared suffering builds character.

My mom is the queen (ha) of such thinking. Her suffering has all her life been quiet, unobserved and unshared. And so when Elizabeth managed that smile, I felt I knew what it cost her. To not rail against the unfairness that had stolen her people's hearts from her. To not give vent to the ugliest feelings inside her.

There's something about watching people making the compassionate choice, when you can see they have solid reasons to be selfish, that always gets me. People being strong for others, and discovering inside them more strength than they knew they had.

My mom has done that for me more times than I could possibly count or repay. She is the strongest person I know.

And if I ever chance to sit down for dinner with Queen Elizabeth II, I will most certainly inform Her Majesty why I seem so non-nonplussed at the occasion.

"My mom taught me what to do."

Thanks, mom.