Friday, April 4, 2014

The Opening Portrait in Helen Mirren's "The Queen" (2006)

I think everyone can agree that a traditional, realistic portrait has an air of distinct gravitas attached to it. An excellent portrait seems almost regal in my eyes as the subject is elevated from mere person to Art with a capital A. Of course, when the subject is royalty itself, that regal feeling is not far off.
Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II
The Queen (2006)
The response to such a portrait was probably what the filmmakers of the critically acclaimed, Academy Award-winning film The Queen (2006) starring Helen Mirren were looking for when they started the film with Her Majesty making pleasant small talk to an elderly portrait painter. Of course, the feeling is elevated, not only because it is Queen Elizabeth, herself, but she is adorned in her majestically archaic robes of the Order of the Garter. A film that directly juxtaposes the idea of the Queen's humanity with her detached, magnificent image couldn't begin any better: the robes of office (imposing) make small talk (welcoming).

But what of that portrait? Done in realistic style, in profile, I couldn't seem to find a "real" portrait anywhere else. So, the search began. It must have been commissioned for the film. I knew for a fact that the "painter" was merely an esteemed actor, Earl Cameron who does not, as it so happens, paint and certainly does not paint realistic portraits of royalty in his spare time.
Charlie Cobb
The real artist is a rising young painter named Charlie Cobb who paints on his own but has come into the news quite recently for painting works for a number of films. Most prominent in his recent resume was his work copying a Goya painting in the 2013 Danny Boyle film Trance. He also helped design the Opening Ceremonies of the London Olympics. And, according to his website, he also painted the portrait in The Queen. It seems that his website shows a slightly more finished view of the painting, but it was never completed beyond that point.
Elizabeth R
According to a 1992 BBC miniseries, Elizabeth R, about the life of the "real" queen, Elizabeth II has sat for nearly one hundred portraits during her reign and nearly ten percent of them are in her garter robes. I mention this documentary, because I stumbled on it in my research and found it quite interesting. Interesting partially because it seems to have made a clear influence on the beginning of The Queen. Just as in the film, Her Majesty sits for her portrait, in garter robes, making small pleasantries with the painter. He paints in profile and is only completed with that famous face, making it the central focal point of the painting. In the case of the film, the painter was Andrew Festing, a prominent aristocratic portrait painter in Britain. I've included the portrait he painted during the documentary, below.
Detail from Elizabeth R
But more than mere subject similarity, The Queen seems to borrow some direct shots from Elizabeth R. When she appears in her garter robes, the camera pans up from her feet to her regal head. She makes a direct glance right into the camera. She smiles, laughs, and makes idle chat with the well-spoken artist. Those scenes happened in both the documentary and the film and provide audience with a the sense of a realistic, but exclusive look into the life of the most famous member of the Royal Family.
Whether those similarities were intended (certainly not to be noticed) as inspiration, I don't know. But you know how I feel about coincidences when it comes to the art in movies. Regardless, Cobb's copycat portrait (Cobb copying Festing, Helen copying the Queen) is certainly very lovely little prop from the film that helps set an appropriately regal, but human tone.

Charlie Cobb Website

Scene from Elizabeth R

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