Film studies: Has one seen oneself, Ma'am?

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The Independent Culture

It's Wednesday, the day after the Los Angeles opening of The Queen, and Stephen Frears has flown up to the Bay Area of San Francisco in the morning for lunch with a few friends. The same evening he will be off back home to London, but then the following week he has to go to Zurich and then be back in Chicago for a tribute.

It's a bit of a royal procession actually, after opening night at the New York Film Festival - and keeping up with Dame Helen Mirren. "The wind is in her sails," he says, judiciously. With every opening she seems to become more regal and more responsible to the Queen. Meanwhile, the film is a big hit in London, and opening this week in America. Frears is already due a bonus and on Friday he may spend it on a new Prius.

Lunch is a superb crab and fruit salad, prepared by Janet Peoples. We are in the house she and her husband David Peoples share, high up in the Berkeley hills, with the world as far west as the Golden Gate Bridge all laid out in perfect order, as if to suggest that the world might be manageable. It's a lunch between a few people who've known each other a long time, and who all exist in some comfort in the most uncomfortable and disordered world they've ever seen - the world of Bush and Blair. As we eat the talk is full of gallows humour and desperate prayers for relief, but tinged with the thought that it might get worse.

Could the Queen help, we wonder? But Frears has not met her, or Tony Blair - at least not yet. It would be rather nice, though, if a deadpan instruction from the Palace arrived - that Frears was to be present - and the poker-faced Her Majesty advanced on him with sword or rolling pin, like Judy looking for Punch.

As far as Frears knows, no one at the Palace has seen the film, though he heard that a close friend to Her Majesty - Lady Brabourne had seen it. "She's seen two films this year," says Frears, "The Queen and Snakes on a Plane."

Opinion at the table is generally that the Queen would be crazy not to see The Queen as it is the most supportive, gentle, admiring and tender of films. Indeed, on American television, on the Charlie Rose Show, Frears has admitted that he may not exactly be a monarchist, but he's "a Queenist".

The striking fact about the film - and the complaint for some - is that he's not a republican. This movie could prolong the royal family's stay by two years or two centuries. It could be a turning point.

"That's the thing," said Frears. "You just don't know. Is she real enough as a person to feel the admiration? Or does she have so little imagination that she's offended at the whole thing?"

It may prove one of England's great movie hits; it could be as profound as The Private Life of Henry VIII - and it is a lot more private. But Frears himself keeps his old attitude - wry, a touch grumpy, ironic and casual - as if to say that he just keeps making movies, doing whatever he can get done. In fact, of course, The Queen is in many ways a sequel to the insider point of view of The Deal, his film about the arrangement between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown that still awaits satisfaction, and which has never been shown in America. In turn, that speaks to a very valuable writing relationship with Peter Morgan and a director-actor relationship with Michael Sheen who played Blair both times for Frears.

Will Blair have another life a year from now? Will Clinton? Will George Bush? The liberal agony presides over lunchtime talk. It's a movie crowd and we range over Kenneth Williams, Patrick McGoohan, Cary Grant, Peter O'Toole as naturally as we discuss Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice and Bush. The astonishing thing about the casual Frears is that with two modest films he has dramatized the inside of English political life. If only he could do the same in America.

I ask him what he might be thinking of doing next and his first instinct is to act tired and helpless. But there is an idea, and it shows the natural progression of many Englishmen - from politics to royalty to soccer. He and Peter Morgan have their first thought of a picture about Brian Clough - old big head - as a rising manager and loudmouth in his conflict with the grim Don Revie. Michael Sheen could play Clough, he thinks, and it could be a picture about those years in Britain when soccer changed. I suddenly see Revie looking a lot like Donald Rumsfeld (who could at last be out of a job).

It's a very pleasant lunch-time chat and a moment to honor this most self-effacing of English directors, a man who just keeps working and moving on, taking the bonus or the boos with the same smile, and having half a dozen great pictures already. And only 65!

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