Charles Petzold

Making Headway on the Movies

November 12, 2006
Roscoe, N.Y.

I am pleased to report that we are making a little bit of progress with my list of "must-see" movies.

Helen Mirren doesn't exactly have goddess status in our household, but she comes pretty close. We saw her in the wonderful Elizabeth I when it was on American TV earlier this year, and we just recently caught up with Prime Suspect 6 on DVD. Of course, Prime Suspect 7 premieres on American TV tonight, and we're very excited about that.

But Helen Mirren is not the only reason to see The Queen, in which she portrays the second of England's queens named Elizabeth. The movie begins when Tony Blair became Prime Minister in May 1997 and then skips ahead to the death of Princess Diana later that year. The movie mainly concerns the reluctance of the royal family to leave Balmoral (their estate in Scotland) to come down to London to participate in the public mourning. Almost everyone else believes they must do this, and yet they can only be gently persuaded rather than ordered.

I found The Queen fascinating for its exploration of the tensions that exist between a modern constitutional government and a vestigial monarchy that nonethess continues to maintain the support of the majority of the British public. Periodically, the British monarchy totters and it seems as if it may finally be played out. The death of Diana was one of those occasions, and although we know how it all ended, that's what makes this movie so spellbinding.

We also saw Infamous, the "other" movie about Truman Capote, and everyone asks if it's really necessary after Philip Seymour Hoffman's terrific performance in Capote. Oh yes, yes, yes indeed. Although Hoffman did quite a good impersonation, Toby Jones in Infamous reminded me more of the Truman Capote I remember seeing on the talks shows (Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett) in the early 70s. Both movies concern the incidences surrounding the researching and writing of Capote's masterpiece In Cold Blood, but Infamous has more of Capote's social life in New York City, and also, I thought, better portrayed his manipulation of the two killers, and his relationship with Perry Smith (played by Daniel Craig, the new James Bond).

Infamous begins with a scene in a late 50s nightclub, in which Gwyneth Paltrow plays a singer (loosely modeled after Peggy Lee) singing Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love." In the middle of the song, she slows down and seems to be too emotionally fraught to carry on. The band stops playing, and the words now come slowly and weakly. But then she recovers and picks up the tempo with the band joining it. Was it real or was it part of the performance (the character's stage performance, I mean)? It's never quite clear, and we never see Gwyneth Paltrow again in the film, but it's a wonderful set piece and sets a tone of emotional ambiguity and deception that flows throughout the rest of the film.