A preteen girl's obsessive quest to cross paths with young Queen Elizabeth during latter's 1953 New Zealand tour provides the charming focus for "Her Majesty," L.A.-based director-scenarist Mark Gordon's polished feature debut. Glossy family pic doesn't pull off its more dramatic components as well as the comic ones.

A preteen girl’s obsessive quest to cross paths with young Queen Elizabeth during latter’s 1953 New Zealand tour provides the charming focus for “Her Majesty,” L.A.-based director-scenarist Mark Gordon’s polished feature debut. Glossy family pic doesn’t pull off its more dramatic components as well as the comic ones. Still, heroine’s pluck, the mildly exotic Kiwi setting, and overall likability could give this girl’s-own-adventure leg-up entree to the same underserved international aud that made recent “The Princess Diaries” a hit.

Star-struck in the wake of the new monarch’s coronation and wedding, 12-year-old North Islander Elizabeth Wakefield (Sally Andrews) can think of little beyond her famous namesake’s approaching visit to NZ. The queen’s precise itinerary hasn’t been announced yet — and Elizabeth seizes that apparent opportunity to send letter after letter abroad, begging QEII grace her own west coast hamlet.

This fixation is shared to a point by best friend Annabel (Anna Sheridan), viewed with modest parental concern (Mark Clare, Alison Routledge), and ridiculed by elder brother Stuart (Craig Elliott). But then latter is a general pain in the arse and prone toward juvenile-delinquent misbehaviors.

News comes that the queen will indeed be stopping by humble Middleton. This instigates furious politicking among locals. Lizzie’s dad hopes his cheese factory, burg’s primary industry, will make the cut. But he’s outmaneuvered by ultra-snob matron Mrs. Hobson (scenery-chewing Liddy Holloway), prez of the local gardening ladies’ Rhododendron Trust — and the mayor’s secret mistress.

Mrs. H. will let nothing hinder her anticipated social triumph. One perceived obstacle is Hira Mata (Vicky Haughton), an elderly Maori woman whose grandfather was betrayed and killed by Brit colonialists a hundred years earlier. She harbors bitter resentment toward middle-class Anglo populace that variously regards her as minor nuisance and/or scary “witch.” Having witnessed Stuart throwing a brick through Hira’s window, Lizzie befriends the at-first-hostile “savage.” Lizzie is criticized but refuses to abandon her adult friend. Meanwhile Stuart goes from bad to worse: Encouraged by unscrupulous Mrs. Hobson, he takes drastic steps ensuring both sis and Hira won’t sully the queen’s imminent visit. Rather corny finale has Elizabeth II herself setting all things aright in a surprise display of contrived political correctness.

Gordon’s nifty scenario juggles various aspects — ordinary brink-of-adolescence growing pains, multicultural-tolerance lessons, suspense gambits — with entertaining skill. His direction is less assured, especially in handling an uneven cast.

Newcomer Andrews has a gawky charm that lends zip to Lizzie’s enthusiasms (like a crush on Cameron Smith’s dreamy young drill team coach). But she’s out of depth limning protag’s precociously strong moral backbone.

Likewise, inexperienced Elliott comes off far too young and bratty-callow to support Stuart’s increasingly malevolent actions. Haughton’s very theatrical turn as Hira seems better suited to a children’s fairy-tale stage production than this generally naturalistic one. Other perfs are capable.

Despite its faltering touch with the story’s darker, more melodramatic threads, “Her Majesty” nonetheless proves winning overall thanks to a predominant emphasis on nostalgia, whimsy (heroine’s royal audience fantasies include one full-on production number) and droll-to-broad humor.

Period atmosphere is deftly realized, with 1950s bourgeoise styles gently ribbed in Lesley Burkes-Harding’s costumes and Kim Sinclair’s production design. Stephen M. Katz’s color lensing is a treat, editor Virginia Katz’s pacing sprightly.

Her Majesty

New Zealand

Production

A Silicon Valley Film Fund presentation of a Walter Coblenz/Mark J. Gordon production. Produced by Coblenz. Executive producers, Susan Lyon Hailey, Lisa B. Gordon, James D. Brubaker. Co-producer, Judith Trye. Directed, written by Mark J. Gordon.

Crew

Camera (color), Stephen M. Katz; editor, Virginia Katz; music, William Ross; production designer, Kim Sinclair; art director, Adriana Tuscia; set decorator, Nick Bassett; costume designer, Leslie Burkes-Harding; sound (Dolby Digital), Jeremy Hoenack; assistant director, Wayne Rose; casting, Terri De'Ath, Rachel Bullock. Reviewed at Mill Valley Film Festival, Oct. 6, 2001. Running time: 105 MIN.

With

Elizabeth Wakefield - Sally Andrews
Hira Mata - Vicky Haughton
John Wakefield - Mark Clare
Virginia Hobson - Liddy Holloway
Stuart Wakefield - Craig Elliott
Annabel Leach - Anna Sheridan
Victoria Wakefield - Alison Routledge
Ian Dixon - Cameron Smith
Headmaster Stringfellow - Stuart Devenie
Mayor Wickstead - David Stott
Nigel Osgood - Geoff Snell
Queen Elizabeth II - Rachel E. Wallis

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