Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Queen

"The PROTAGONIST must be empathetic; he may or may not be sympathetic."
- Robert McKee

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, which was played brilliantly by Helen Mirren and written masterfully by Peter Morgan, possesses neither of those qualities. She is neither like us nor likeable. She will command your respect but not necessarily your heart.

And yet, The Queen will go on to win awards on top of awards, because it is a story so very well told. She was both right and wrong, loving and callous, stuffy and witty, stubborn and compromising, perceptive and out of touch, and you cannot help but be fascinated by her.

Those who are NOTHING like us living in a world we've never known can be so very interesting to us, can they not, BECAUSE they are not like us? Is it so terribly wrong to have a protag who isn't empathetic or sympathetic but instead possesses great character depth?



GameArs said...

"She was both right and wrong, loving and callous, stuffy and witty, stubborn and compromising, perceptive and out of touch,"

That suonds like your bio.

As far as the question about being empathetic of sympathetic, I will reserve judgement until I see the film then return to this blog post.

Mim said...

Definitely a lot of contradiction there, MM.

In the commentary track for The Opposite of Sex, Don Roos says he wrote the screenplay to break rules. He wanted to use long sections of voice over, and he wanted to create an unlikeable protagonist.

Looks like Peter Morgan has made the same breakthrough.

Both my daughter and my sister have told me I MUST see this movie. They both loved it.

nena eskridge said...

"The PROTAGONIST must be empathetic; s/he may or may not be sympathetic."

Or what?

"Is it so terribly wrong to have a protag who isn't empathetic or sympathetic but instead possesses great character depth?"

Certainly hope so! It is, isn't Mr. Man?

Mystery Man said...

Nena - Absolutely!

Miriam - This might be my favorite movie this year, although the year's not over yet. I wouldn't recommend that artists be rebellious, only masters of the craft, but I would take note when someone breaks the rules and it works. Of course, outside of the royal family, there were plenty of empathetic characters to balance things out.


GimmeABreak said...

You already told me once in a review I ignored McKee - I guess I'm ignoring him again. It's nice if I can empathize with a character but sometimes just a plain ol' INTERESTING character will do. Sometimes, empathy gets in the way and I lose objectivity. As I recall, that's what happened when I tried to watch The Way We Were. I hated the movie because I identified too closely with one of the characters.

Mickey Lee said...

I think, like anything else, it depends on what as a writer you are trying to say with your film.

I got taken to task more than a few times for having an unlikeable protagonist in my story. But I felt that that was what the story I was writing called for. To have it any other way would be a disservice to the themes.

But hey -- what do I know??

Mystery Man said...

Pat - I'm not sure what exactly you're referring to, but I apologize if I gave the wrong impression. I do love McKee and I also hate him. He absolutely nailed it with respect to character depth and I will take believable contradictions to my grave and I will always be grateful to him for teaching me that principle. But an empathetic protagonist? Please. I don't think I ever bought into that idea.

I've changed my opinions about quite a few things after having joined TriggerStreet. Ross Mahler changed my mind about how early the Inciting Incident should be. I now regret having told so many that Inciting Incident should happen as soon as possible and preferably before page 5, which I believe I told Mickey in my first review of his story. Sorry about that. I also got a firey and passionate defense of flashback structures from "Immaginativa" once. She talked a lot about "Amadeus" That was a great discussion. I still hate it, but I won't bitch so much about it.

Mickey - Your protagonist was DAMN interesting and funny and that's what made your story great!


GimmeABreak said...

No need for apology, MM. I took what you said as a compliment (re: use of V.O. in my latest SP). I, too, have a great deal of respect for McKee et al but I'm to the point now where I try to synthesize what they say and apply the essence of their teachings without feeling compelled to follow their instructions to the letter.

nena eskridge said...

You're saying, Mr. Man, that Queen E was not a sympathetic/empathetic protagonist but I think the director might disagree. The deer and the jeep scene -- you know the one. He put that fictionalized scene in there for a reason -- to humanize her, right? Point being, empathy/sympathy is in the eyes of the beholder, is it not?

Maybe I need to better understand the definition of empathetic. I think, I think Mr. McKee is saying that a protag doesn't have to be a sympathetic one, but the viewer needs to at least understand why the character is doing what she is doing. Am I totally off base?

Mystery Man said...

Nena, I love the fact that you brought this scene up.

On Thanksgiving, I took out my Mystery Parents to see The Queen. They loved it and couldn’t stop talking about it. We talked quite a bit about that stag. Someone suggested it was “misplaced emotions,” but I think it was more than that. I think that stag symbolized the institution itself and her love for it.

While the Queen was stuck there in that river, she saw that stag and fell in love with it for its graceful, dignified beauty in the same way she loves the monarchy, which, like the stag, had suddenly come under fire. And so she was willing to aid the stag in its survival in the same way she would eventually be willing to do those things Blair suggested in order to survive and avoid what could have turned into a serious movement to dissolve the monarchy. Her decision, of course, came after seeing that beautiful stag dead, wounded, and beheaded.

That scene in the river certainly humanized her and I’m sure earned some sympathy from the audience. But was she a sympathetic character overall? I don’t think so.

I would also suggest that there wasn’t much of a character arc in the Queen, either. In the end, she paid lip service to modernization, but did she change all that much? I don’t think so. She told Blair she “may never understand what happened that week.”

With respect to Mckee's take on empathy, I think her meant that the character had to be "like us," that there has to be a shared humanity in that character, that we can relate to him/her in some way. In most cases, I would say that's true, but not in every case and certainly not in this one.


nena eskridge said...

You are very smart ... and, as always, right on target. While we're on the Queen and the stag, or whatever the heck that thing was, why did she smile in the carcass scene? she looked at the head, touched the wound, then smiled. it was very weird.

--I think he meant that the character had to be "like us," that there has to be a shared humanity in that character--

yikes, I'm in trouble.

Mystery Man said...


You're not in trouble, Nena, because McKee was wrong.

Would you say that Jennifer in Stray is "like us" or "likeable?" Yeah, a little bit, I think. But to me, she's fascinating, and sometimes that's all a character needs to be.


Mystery Man said...

Oh, and the thing about her smiling. I've seen the movie twice, but I had to step out during that scene the first time.

I'm not sure that smile registered with me the second time. I don't know. I'd have to see it again, and I plan to someday.

pooks said...

I finally saw it yesterday. I have to say, I thought the stag represented Diana. The dark irony that in order to relieve themselves of the stress, they were stalking a rare and beautiful beast, just as Diana had been stalked to her death? Oh, yeah.

And the further irony that the Queen paid the kind of respect to the death of the stag that she didn't to Diana? Interesting choice, that.

Which doesn't mean I don't like the Queen, or the film. I do like the Queen and especially like the way Tony Blair was used to voice his own character arc, or at least the way his opinion of the Queen changed.

Mystery Man said...


That's an interesting take on the stag. We talked about the idea of the stag representing Diana, but I went with the notion that it represented the monarchy because I just didn't think her feelings about Diana changed all that much, although perhaps the stag made her sympathize more about her death.

I got the impression she related to that stag personally and felt like SHE was coming under fire like that stag. And when she gave a final look at its severed heard, I was under the impression she felt sorry for it and thought of herself. Hence all that dialogue from Blair about her "fighting to survive."

But I could very well be wrong and you could be right. I'm certainly open to different interpretations. That stag could've changed her feelings about what happened to Diana at least enough to compromise and do those things Blair asked of her. I'd have to think about it some more.

It's a really interesting subplot because it's so full of subtext, ya know? I really loved it.


pooks said...

I didn't think the stag changed her feelings about Diana at all. I didn't think SHE saw it as Diana. I saw it as Diana, and noticed that the queen showed more response to the stag's death than Diana's.

However, I like your interpretation. I've also heard others. I wonder what the screenwriter intended. One mark of a good film is that it can mean different things to different people.

Mystery Man said...

I've been thinkng a lot about your comment, "The dark irony that in order to relieve themselves of the stress, they were stalking a rare and beautiful beast, just as Diana had been stalked to her death."

That's a really interesting take, and I have no complaints about that. That's a great observation.