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Elizabeth: A Portrait in Parts

★★★★ - STUFF 

- An impressionistic collage of the Queen's life - 

I'm not sure what I was expecting from Elizabeth: A Portrait in Parts.

Is there anything that can be added to the well-worn outlines of this most public of lives? Queen Elizabeth II has been biopic-ed, fictionalised and mythologised more than anyone alive 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 as long as their flag flies above Windsor.

Elizabeth: A Portrait in Parts is also the very last time we will see director Roger Michell's name on a film poster. Michell has been a titan of the British film and theatre business for so long, I was shocked to learn he was only 65 when he died, in September last year.

Michell might always be best known for Notting Hill, but his work on The MotherVenus and Enduring Love marked him out as a film-maker who could retain accessibility, no matter how scabrous his characters became. While charmers like 2020's The Duke (still screening here) showed that Michell had lost none of his comic timing and nimbleness.

For Elizabeth, Michell has taken a very different route to his subject. In 2018, Michell sat the Dames Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith around a table and filmed their banter. The result was the terrific Tea With The Dames. But for Elizabeth, Michell hasn't talked to anyone, or shot any new material at all.

Elizabeth: A Portrait in Parts is made out of existing newsreel and documentary footage. There is no narration or captioning. It is simply a subjective, personal and mischievous assemblage of images and scraps of stories, meticulously – and yet energetically – thrown into a conversation. The clips are not assembled chronologically – except, in a few instances, when they are – but they are loosely joined thematically.

Each resulting “chapter” of the film is a few or more minutes long. But there is more to A Portrait in Parts than a compilation of historical footage. Michell chucks in TV excerpts, music-hall numbers, commercials, home-movies and a dizzying array of archival...stuff. Everything from Zulu to Star Trek is thrown at the screen. The effect is like watching Michell's personal scrapbook of ideas and intersections being flicked through for the cameras. Whether or not Michell was 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 disrespectful or hurtful at all.

What emerges from Michell's whirlwind is something like awe, that anyone could be so examined, discussed and documented – and yet still be such a cypher, except at anything but the most superficial levels. I think Michell intends that awe as a compliment.

Elizabeth: A Portrait in Parts maybe isn't one for the purists and The Crown crowd. It is a mosaic of glimpses that add up to something like an impressionistic portrait made of collage. Unexpectedly, I liked it very much.

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF

Elizabeth: A Portrait in Parts is now playing at Light House Cinema!


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