Private Feelings, Public Conduct: Merging Worlds?

By Atkinson, Roland | Clinical Psychiatry News, February 2007 | Go to article overview

Private Feelings, Public Conduct: Merging Worlds?


Atkinson, Roland, Clinical Psychiatry News


It's Oscar time, and my favorites for best picture are "The Queen" (nominated) and "Notes on a Scandal" (not nominated--boo, hiss!). For best performance by an actress, I wholeheartedly agree with the nominations of the two players whose marvelous turns make these dramas so good: Dame Helen Mirren, as Queen Elizabeth II, and Dame Judi Dench, as London high school history teacher Barbara Covett in "Notes."

These two movies should be of interest to psychiatrists. "Queen" considers emotionality writ large: the changing societal norms for public sentimental expression. "Notes" concerns personal psychic distress and the destructiveness that desperation can wreak when private pain compels unacceptable public behavior.

"The Queen," directed by Stephen Frears, is a nearly flawless film, a lustrous, suspenseful docudrama that retells the story of upheaval in London and elsewhere, in the days following Aug. 31, 1997, when Princess Diana, recently divorced from Prince Charles, was killed in a high-speed auto crash in a Paris tunnel. Dramatized conversations bring together major personalities at the center of the public dilemma that rapidly unfolded following Diana's death. Featured in particular is the untested relationship between the Queen and Tony Blair, who had become prime minister only 4 months earlier.

Helen Mirren was, as they say, born to play Queen Elizabeth II. In every tableau, body movement, and nuance of feeling she conveys to us, with or without words, she is, simply, majestic. But this movie is far more than a star vehicle. The major supporting players are superb, including Sylvia Syms (the Queen Mother), James Cromwell (Prince Philip), Alex Jennings (Prince Charles), Michael Sheen (Mr. Blair), and their retainers. They engage with Ms. Mirren to play out a delicate real-life drama within the framework of a taut cultural and political crisis, one that is, above all else, a threat to the monarchy itself.

Changing Rules of the Game

Events take place in an enervating, yet suppressed, palace atmosphere, the tension level constantly ratcheted up as the Queen resists repeated appeals from the press, Mr. Blair, and others to acknowledge public outpourings of sorrow. Of course no one knows how many of the film's conversations actually took place, or whether they followed the dialogue spoken here. However, the actors have magnificently sculpted their characterizations to fit popular perceptions of these figures.

But there's more. I would not be surprised if this film is considered a classic decades from now, possibly even in the same league with Jean Renoir's 1939 critique of pre-war French society, "Rules of the Game." The reason is an overarching subtext, not about individual personalities, but about changes afoot in the broad fabric of social custom, with regard to the appropriateness and legitimacy of public emotional expression.

The Clueless Queen

Elizabeth's seemingly callous aloofness from the public in the wake of Diana's death is the result of her conviction, based on her upbringing, she says, that duty requires her to respond with mute stoicism in the face of tragedy. Personal sentiments are an entirely private matter, hence not to be aired in public. One must soldier on. Mustn't grumble. The English way.

The Queen is baffled, even offended, by the cathartic public response to Diana's death. Elizabeth thinks this public sentiment is coarse, tasteless, and out of place. She makes a serious miscalculation when she fails to consider, or perhaps even to perceive, the alternative view, that the rules of public discourse--especially with regard to the open expression of personal sentiments--had been changing around the world for years. Public voicing of personal feelings, in response to poignant events and matters once considered taboo for public consumption, had gradually become the new norm, displacing public stoicism.

The Royals' cloistered existence very probably has always shielded them from accurately gauging the pulse of popular societal movements. …

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