Elizabeth R: A Year in the Life of the Queen

Only slightly less stiff than the upper lip of its subject, "Elizabeth R" presents a royally controlled portrait of one of the Earth's more charming irrelevancies.

Only slightly less stiff than the upper lip of its subject, “Elizabeth R” presents a royally controlled portrait of one of the Earth’s more charming irrelevancies.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and just as heavy is the hand that opts to film it. BBC veteran Edward Mirzoeff deserves a knighthood for his effort. His doc celebrating the 40th anniversary of the queen’s ascension tries valiantly to scrape some veneer from the institution. But it’s the institutional veneer that ultimately dethrones him.

The queen may be the world’s most popular monarch, but she’s not much of a subject. Her life seems disjointed, aloof and not particularly prone to any real self-revelation as it leaps from one public function to another.

Over the course of a year, she cuts ribbons, plants trees, names ships, offers bromides, shakes hands, sits for portraits, hosts parties and makes small talk. Indeed, making small talk seems to be her defining act.

There is one instant, though, where the act turns into art, a perfect Monty Python moment during her 1991 state visit to the United States. Hosting a gala in Florida on the Royal Yacht Britannia, she is caught in odd conversation with the Reagans. Nancy looks on, almost horrified, as the ex-prez, befuddled, keeps asking for decaffeinated coffee.

The wonder of the queen is simply her presence, orchestrating her requests for the coffee in a normal speaking voice to her steward, and then, as she turns back to Reagan, gracefully and coolly raising her decibels to accommodate his deafness. It is a real moment of humanness and personality, and Mirzoeff’s cameras do capture others.

Still, “Elizabeth R” feels hollow and manipulative. The queen, of course, only grants access to what she wants to grant access to; 66 years in the public eye have taught her to keep her distance.

So, as her family breaks apart around her, there is no acknowledgement of any trouble; other than the grandchildren, there are few shots or mentions even of the offspring who’ve contributed so much to our voyeuristic pleasures and her royal blues. And while the queen provides some chatty voiceover interview, she never talks directly to the camera.

In the end, “Elizabeth R” is as scripted and unspontaneous as any of Elizabeth R’s other public appearances. God save the queen; the BBC couldn’t.

Elizabeth R: A Year in the Life of the Queen

(Mon. (16), 9-11 p.m., PBS)

  • Production: A BBC/Lionheart Television production. Producer-director, Edward Mirzoeff; writers, Antony Jay, Mirzoeff.
  • Crew: Camera, Philip Bonham-Carter; editor, Alan Lygo; sound, Peter Edwards; composer, Rachel Portman.
  • Cast: Narrator: Ian Holm.