The late Roger Michell’s ‘covid-made’ anniversary tribute reflects his pathos and playfulness

Reviews by Joyce Glasser Elizabeth: A Portrait in Part(s) (May 27th in cinemas & June 1st on Prime Video) Cert 12A, 89 min.

There is no British director who captures the fear, despair and defiant resilience of men and women in the face of age like Roger Michell, whose sudden death at the age of 65 prevented his last two films from being received. The Duke and his anniversary present, Elizabeth: A Portrait in Part(s). Despite Michell’s track record of portraying older people with jobs and responsibilities, whose later years are marred by tumultuous personal events, (The Mother, Venus, Morning Glory, Le Week-End, The Duke and Nothing like a lady) of Queen Elizabeth he has only superlatives: “She is the longest-serving female head of state in the history of the world, the oldest living monarch in the world, the longest-reigning current monarch, and the oldest and longest-serving current head of state. But… she’s so much more than all those things now.”

This covid-made visual portrait is a compilation of hundreds of hours of archival footage, ordered not in chronological order but by current chapters such as The Queen’s Speech, At Home, At Sea, The Fire at Windsor and “Annus horribilis when”. Diane has died. World travel, the royal yacht, garden parties and protocol all come into their own.

The more recent family debacles date slightly after the film was edited, but earlier ones are alluded to rather than discussed.

There is no original material – and no chapter headings or explanations added to the archive material. Originality comes from the tone and editing, and if you gave the same footage to another director you would quickly recognize Michell’s style.

Prepare to see Elizabeth in different outfits and at different ages, completing the same chores month after month, year after year, trying to pretend everything is as fresh and exciting to her as it is to the millions who they watch; or to the lucky few in a receiving line.

The “Love Story” with the late Philip is captured through repetition, often off-camera, in different settings and different years, through the words “my husband and I”. We hear this sentence again and again, but with changing images of the young and mature couple. They resemble the images known from Philips commemorative reporting.

We see Elizabeth touring Commonwealth countries just as we see her touring British factories and pressing buttons, hundreds of buttons in dozens of different hats that usually match her outfits. In 1987, along with legendary chairman Lee Jae-Yong, she turned on both the monitor and microwave production lines at Sony’s new factory. In one news program we hear: “They will then walk down the production line, where they may stop to speak to some employees.”

Though all the handshakes, train waves, and curtseys can get monotonous, Joanna Crickmay’s scintillating editing allows Michell’s wit and personal commentary to shine through, allowing us to make out the details. A cute little girl curtseys to the outgoing queen when a guard raises his arm stiffly to salute her and hits the little girl in the head. As the segment cuts, all we hear is a cry of pain.

But you don’t need keen eyesight to see the Queen’s delight in the In the Saddle chapter. Riding a pony as a teenager; galloping through green hills with Margaret in green cloaks; Galloping on the beach on a Thoroughbred and late in life on a slow walking Highland pony with court escort. Elizabeth’s devotion to her racehorses is also evident as we see her jumping up and down the track, running around and clapping with excitement. Watch her cash in on a bet, excited to win £16 but not used to handling cash despite her image being omnipresent.

Many viewers will be confused as to what exactly they are watching, as willy-nilly Michell made a conscious decision not to load the film with captions, identify names and dates, and make it a historical documentary, which it is not. When the Queen cruises down the Thames to open the refurbished Tower Bridge (one of many cruises down the Thames we see), it must be 1976, and she’s sharing a memory of Winston Churchill, one of the many Prime Ministers she knew (there is a montage of her meetings with Blair, Brown, Cameron, etc.). She recalls that Churchill drew the Thames “the silver thread that runs through the history of Britain,” adding with a distant look, “Winston saw things in a very romantic and glittering way.”

We get glimpses of the behind-the-scenes preparations and protocols that hint at the extent to which the Queen is the towering cog in a vast, regimented, refined, complex and expensive wheel. It’s a fantasy kingdom of sorts, sustained by historical tradition and credibility, the unconditional bondage and dignity of Elizabeth II.

We also see an analogous honorary filing cabinet with an index card to John Lennon’s Order of the British Empire (Class: Ordinary Member). It was stamped at Buckingham Palace on 26 October 1965 and returned in 1969. A voice tells us that “for some reason he returned it”. In the corner we see a handwritten note: “Died 8/12/80.”

The delightful musical score is perfectly matched to each segment. Nat King Cole’s heartbreaking song “Mona Lisa” accompanies the “Close-up” section, in which the Queen poses for several portraits, seated in full regalia and fiddling with a tassel in one. A television clip of the late art critic Robert Hughes commenting on the Mona Lisa’s merchandise (‘from soaps to sweatshirts’) at the Louvre is punctuated with all the souvenirs bearing the Queen’s image. “She passes the final notoriety test,” remarks Hughes cynically of the Mona Lisa, “she’s famous for being famous.”

Michell finished editing the sound on the day of his death last September. The Cambridges’ controversial trip to the Caribbean and recent discussions about the continued relevance of the Commonwealth and the monarchy itself may shed new light on the film: a perspective Michell may have foreseen.

The late Roger Michell’s ‘covid-made’ anniversary tribute reflects his pathos and playfulness

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