As Netflix’s “The Crown” has spent two seasons proving, Queen Elizabeth II is fascinating precisely because of how uninteresting she is. She has to be in order for her title and office to make sense; she’s spent 65 years as the standard-bearer of British life and culture, and bearing herself with unflappable composure and a comforting staidness is the point. All of which makes her a challenging subject for art; she has little of the public dynamism that keeps us watching.
And yet “Queen of the World,” a new documentary airing on HBO Oct. 1, makes the case both for her stoic refusal to change as a boon to the planet and for the idea that she’s shifted more than is visible to the stateside observer. The documentary depicts the royal family’s efforts to engage with the world through the Commonwealth of Nations, an intergovernmental group that fosters cooperation and exchange between countries, with the United Kingdom at the helm. That the film, for which the royal family granted access, is so tightly focused on this sort of cultural exchange makes it a somewhat dutiful watch, and an intriguing document of both Elizabeth’s and her heirs’ priorities.
The Queen herself is little-heard-from throughout; she delegates speaking to the camera to family members and other speakers, who clearly filled with a sort of pious appreciation for her, reminisce about her travels around the world throughout her reign. Her daughter, Princess Anne, offers a commentary about how interacting with the public has changed that may be more revealing than she intends: “It’s not for me to say it’s wrong,” she says of taking selfies, then goes on at some length about how it is wrong indeed. Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, appear, too; In a frank and sweet conversation with residents of Commonwealth nations brought to work at Buckingham Palace, Harry offers advice if they are to bump into the Queen in the hallway: “Don’t panic. I know you will; we all do.”
The film, indeed, feels animated by a similar deference and fear of its largely absent star, whose efforts to unite many of the world’s nations around the values of the U.K. go uninterrogated. No matter how much access the Queen grants — we see her speaking gently with subjects and hear that she’s come to love Jamaican callaloo soup, for instance — she’s inaccessible. What tidbits we’re given only emphasize quite how much is held back; her metier, when speaking to her subjects, is the lightest sort of small talk.
Perhaps the film’s best touch is the degree to which it sets up a contrast between the royal for whom “Queen of the World” is a valedictory document and the one for whom it’s something of a debut. Meghan appears in a segment during which she examines her wedding dress with a preservationist before it’s put on public view; she recounts the floral patterns, symbolic of different Commonwealth nations, with what has become her trademark creamy semi-sincerity. Meghan’s commitment to the role — and to conveying her serious interest in engaging the people of the world on her mission — is carried off with as much intensity as the Queen’s diplomacy is done through lightness. It makes for a surprising and resonant point, one that “Queen of the World” carries across gracefully: Queen Elizabeth could be a moral exemplar for the world because being ruler of the British Empire is something meaningful in and of itself. She didn’t have to be interesting, or to give too much of herself away.
Meghan and Harry, along with the rest of their generational cohort, will have to fight harder to keep our interest. They won’t have the luxury of being boring.
“Queen of the World,” documentary, 60 mins., HBO, Mon., Oct. 1, 8 p.m. E.T.
Director: Matt Hill
Executive Producer: Nick Kent