Her Majesty tells the fictional story of a young 13 year-old New Zealander girl (Sally Andrews) who, obsessed with the newly coronated Queen Elizabeth II, writes letter after letter, urging the Queen to visit her small town during the Queen's planned visit to New Zealand. But in the weeks prior to the Queen's visit, young Elizabeth befriends a local Maori woman (Vicky Haughton), an elderly remnant of New Zealand's shameful past. Through their friendship, Elizabeth learns about the aboriginal culture of Hira, while Hira learns to trust at least one member of the white culture that sublimated hers.
While this description sounds fairly heavy, Her Majesty was conceived and billed as a family film, laced with heavy doses of slapstick comedy. Unfortunately, this division of tone is precisely why the film doesn't work. It can't find its voice. Pleased just a little too much with itself, Her Majesty has a smugness to the lesson it's teaching us, that goes down hard with the audience, particularly when inept comedy sequences -- totally out of synch with the rest of the film -- bring us up short. It also assumes -- incorrectly -- that we the audience are already fairly familiar with the past history that consumes the characters in the story. While I've read about the Maori massacres in New Zealand, I wouldn't trust myself to write a paper on it, and I would imagine that most audiences were left in the dark about exactly what had happened between the two cultures that clash in this film. It's a lazy approach to a critical subtext of the film, and it never really recovers from this omission. Primary blame for this must lie with first time writer/director Mark J. Gordon. It's his baby, nurtured from a long period of development, so whatever failings the film embraces, they must come from Gordon. It's clear he's a first-time director; in addition to his failing to maintain a consistent tone and rhythm for not only the entire film, but for individual scenes, Her Majesty has plenty of odd, arbitrary camera angles that make no sense in relation to a scene's particular meaning or intent -- clearly the sign of a director who wants to show off, for no reason. And to no effect.
While I would have preferred either a straight drama that told the story of the old Maori woman and the child, or a straight comedy about a clash of cultures -- Her Majesty fails to deliver on both counts. A fair scene with some decent writing about cultures and the nature of people's aggression against each other, is often followed by a cringe-inducing scene of ineptitude, such as when a local society snob engages in a sexual tryst with the town mayor -- while wearing bumblebee antennae. A competent, though predictable, emotional encounter between father and son, or father and daughter appears, and then we're treated to a wildly psychotic act by the son, which garners no appreciative response from his guardians who, in real life, would have locked the kid up and thrown away the key. And a fantasy musical number goes horribly wrong right from the start; its inclusion in this particular film is explainable, only if one is willing to admit the director mistakenly indulged himself at the further expense of the film.
The acting is adequate. Certainly, Sally Andrews has the potential to be a charming actress, but director Gordon overdoes the whimsy and gawkiness of the character (just view Sally Andrews in the "Making of" featurette that accompanies this disc -- she's far more animated, more natural, more charming, in her on-set interview, than she is in the film. That's due to the director, not the actress). However, a huge mistake is made by the director in choosing Vicky Haughton (Whale Rider) to play the 90 year-old Maori woman Hira. You can slap on all the phony latex you want, but if the actress can't transcend it, can't make you forget the artifice and make you believe you're watching an elderly aborigine, you've failed -- both as an actor and a director. And Haughton does not transcend the makeup.
She's far too young to play the character (as readily admitted by both the actress and the director in the "Making of" featurette), and her laughably phony attempt at the character's warbley voice, along with a bent-over, stumbley gait that reminds one more of Groucho Marx than old age, utterly ruins the effect both the director and actor had obviously tried to achieve.
I can see why the film won accolades from people who yearn for family films that enlighten as well as entertain. Her Majesty has the easy, non-threatening, non-complex liberal attitude towards its subject that allows audiences to rest easy, safe in the knowledge that all of Group "A" is evil, and all of Group "B" is kind, and if only there was a little love in the world, we'd all get along. The audience's brains can go into neutral, because the film has all of its stereotypes down pat, with no room for questioning on the audience's part. But I can assure you that there will be parents that will have a hard time with a film that treats, in passing, a reference to cannibalism -- that's right, a major character admits to eating human flesh -- as a joke. And a sick joke at that. The currently popular trend towards moral and societal equivalency aside, it's going to be tough explaining that one to your kid.
Her Majesty has a nice, careful attention to detail -- if a little too careful, a little too well scrubbed (all the props look shiny new, like they just came from the collectors' glass cases) for total believability. The scenery is spectacular, and the score by William Ross is effective -- and overused. Every scene of emotion is keyed to a rising theme, that quickly gets annoying. Other tech credits such as editing and cinematography are adequate.
Her Majesty looks pristine in this 1.78:1 widescreen presentation, enhanced for 16:9 TVs. Colors are bold and really pop out at the viewer, with deep, true blacks in the night sequences.
There is a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1, and dts Digital Surround, which has some good separation during the parade sequence, and Dolby 2.0 Stereo, which will sound fine on more basic equipment. Honestly, considering the slightness of the film, and its conventional audio design, it's a wealth of choices for no apparent reason. There are no other languages offered, nor closed captioning (which could have aided with some of the Kiwi accents).
There's a "Making of" featurette that does a good job of giving a behind-the-scenes view of the production, complete with cast and crew interviews. It's pretty much a rah rah production, though, actively asking you to love this film. A theatrical trailer is also included.
Her Majesty offers a diluted message of tolerance and understanding that does absolutely nothing to challenge audiences to rethink their attitudes. It talks down to its intended family audience by assuming that its message will go down easier with doses of inappropriate -- as well as ineptly executed -- comedy relief, that insult the young viewers' intelligence. Wobbly acting choices further compromise the story. Skip this one.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.