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Reality plays tricks on pics

Nominees borrow unscripted techniques

In years to come, 2006 may be remembered as the year filmmakers blurred the lines between reality and fiction to ever more provocative effect — and clearly, Oscar was paying attention.

A work of cold-sweat realism, “United 93” employed a rigorous verite aesthetic, all handheld shaky-cam, with several nonprofessional actors. The film, which received Oscar nominations for editing and Paul Greengrass’ direction, didn’t re-create the trauma of 9/11 so much as hurl the viewer headlong into it.

Something similar could be said of “Children of Men,” whose astonishing long-take action sequences (shot with a blood-spattered camera by Oscar nominee Emmanuel Lubezki) suggested the experience of real warfare captured on film.

And at the other extreme was “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” whose adapted screenplay nomination is something of a marvelous joke, considering how the film blurs the lines between scripted comedy and guerrilla-style performance art. Its fans may be surprised to realize it, but even “The Queen” fits in with all of this “reality”-tinged filmmaking. Stephen Frears’ imaginative docudrama is a subtle and cerebral work, not the visceral assault of “United 93,” “Children of Men” or “Borat,” yet it speaks pointedly to our era of media saturation and celebrity worship.

A few naysayers have dismissed “The Queen” as a glorified TV movie — a critique that proves the film’s point while missing it entirely. “The Queen” is not a TV movie so much as a movie about television, one that deliberately chooses to critique that medium by imitating its language.

A show that gives viewers access to the private life of a celebrity — whether it’s Elizabeth II or Kevin Federline — is one definition of reality television, and it also happens to be a perfect description of “The Queen’s” working method.

The film unspools during the week following Princess Diana’s death in 1997, as the public’s unprecedented display of mourning is subsumed by anger that Her Royal Iciness (played by Helen Mirren) has not deigned to grieve alongside them. There’s a moment when Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), having already made his share of personal appearances, throws up his hands in frustration. “It’s not me they want to see,” he says. No, they want to see the queen — and, we’re forced to admit, so do we.

As viewers, we’re granted an especially privileged window into the queen’s inner world. The paradox of the movie is that we come away respecting her need for decorum and propriety, but only because Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan have so rudely torn down the veil. There’s no better way to understand an individual’s need for privacy than to shove a camera in her face.

* * *

Prior to “The Queen,” no film understood or illustrated this better than “The Truman Show.” Peter Weir’s 1998 film, about a man gradually realizing his entire life has been a source of national entertainment, anticipated the popularity of reality television before the genre as we know it even existed.

In “The Truman Show,” there’s a moment when Truman’s “father,” long ago killed off, is brought back by the show’s creator. The reunion, dishonest though it may be, is shot, scored and manipulated in such a way that it’s impossible not to be moved even as we’re aware of the strings being pulled. Dammit, we want the strings to be pulled.

In “The Queen,” Blair’s smarmy speechwriter posthumously dubs Diana “the People’s Princess,” congratulating himself for knowing exactly what the public will eat up. Yet when Blair delivers those words, they’re genuinely stirring — as evidenced by the housekeeping staff at Buckingham Palace, who watch the speech with nary a dry eye among them. They might be distant cousins of the viewers we see glued to their sets in “The Truman Show.”

Together, the two films testify to the power of television to stir up public emotion through deceptive yet engrossing narratives. And like “The Truman Show,” “The Queen” is about an individual with no idea of how closely she’s being watched — except that unlike Truman, she has no escape from her fishbowl existence. To survive, she must appease, even entertain, the public.

It’s no coincidence that at one point, Frears throws in a shot of President Clinton, who at the time was about to have his own skeletons thrust into the spotlight. At every moment, “The Queen” is fascinated by the intersection of private lives and the public sphere.

Such news footage recurs throughout the film, lending it the tone of not merely a documentary, but an indictment. The film lays the blame for Diana’s death at the feet of the media and a rabid public that couldn’t get enough of her. And with every shot of mourners bawling their eyes out at Buckingham Palace, “The Queen” resembles nothing so much as one of those grief-porn montages on YouTube. How exactly, the film asks, is this their tragedy?

* * *

“Reality” is an inherently provocative medium, and both “United 93” and “Borat” have ignited fascinating debates about the integrity of their methods. The former asks how we ought to commemorate a national tragedy, if we should commemorate it at all, while the latter suggests a perilously thin line between satire and inhumanity.

As much as “The Queen” invites us to question its heroine and her relevance in a modern era, it directs its toughest inquiry right back at the audience. Her Majesty has had her reality check. Where does that leave the rest of us?

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