Elizabeth: A Portrait in Parts. (E, 89 min) Directed by Roger Michell ****
I don’t know what I expected from Elizabeth: a multi-part portrait.
Is there anything to add to the worn contours of this most public life? Queen Elizabeth II has been biopic-ed, fictionalized and mythologized more than anyone living I could name.
Surely the only thing that could add to the narrative would be some sort of unfettered access to “the truth.” Which, royalty being what it is, is the one thing that will never happen while their flag is flying over Windsor.
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Elizabeth: a multi-part portrait It’s also the very last time we’ll see director Roger Michell’s name on a movie poster. Michell has been a titan of British film and theater for so long that I was shocked to learn he was only 65 when he died in September last year.
Michell might always be best known for Notting Hillbut his work on The mother, Venus and lasting love marked him as a filmmaker who could remain approachable no matter how scabrous his characters got. While charmers love the 2020s The Duke (still screened here) showed that Michell had lost none of his comedic timing and agility.
For Elizabeth, Michell took a very different route to approaching his subject. In 2018, Michell sat Dames Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith around a table and filmed their jokes. The result was great Tea with the ladies. But for ElizabethMichell spoke to no one and did not shoot any new material.
Elizabeth: a multi-part portrait is made up of news footage and existing documentaries. There is no narration or subtitles. It’s simply a subjective, personal, and playful assemblage of images and snippets of stories, meticulously – and yet energetically – thrown into conversation. The clips are not chronologically assembled – except, in a few cases, when they are – but they are loosely joined thematically.
Each “chapter” resulting from the film lasts a few minutes or more. But there is more to A portrait in several parts than a compilation of historical images. Michell throws in TV clips, music hall numbers, commercials, home movies and a dizzying array of archives. All of Zulu for star trek is projected on the screen. The effect is like watching Michell’s personal album of ideas and intersections leaf through for the cameras. Whether or not Michell is a fan of the monarchy – I have no idea. His film is certainly not a portrait that plays by the protocols of a “royal biopic”, but it is affectionate – I think – and not in the least disrespectful or hurtful.
What emerges from Michell’s whirlwind is something like awe, that anyone could be so scrutinized, discussed and documented – and yet be such a cipher, except at all but the most superficial levels. I think Michell takes this fear as a compliment.
Elizabeth: a multi-part portrait may not be for purists and The crown crowd. It’s a mosaic of glimpses that add up to something like an impressionistic portrait made of collage. Unexpectedly, I liked it a lot.
Elizabeth: a multi-part portrait is now showing in theaters nationwide.