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Portrait of the Queen (2023) — Movie Review

In a realm often beset by fleeting public figures, Queen Elizabeth II stands as a paragon of steadiness and decorum. Serving as the British monarch for a remarkable seven decades, her public persona has been one of unwavering dignity and grace. For most Britons, she was the only queen they ever knew, making her recent passing a profoundly affecting event. When people summarize her character in just one word, the responses are almost universally positive: 'constant,' 'strong,' 'restrained,' and 'respected.'

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Director Fabrizio Ferri takes a unique approach to documenting the Queen's life in his film. Rather than employing the traditional documentary style that adheres to a chronological retelling, Ferri looks to Paola Calvetti's 2019 book, "Elisabetta II, Ritratto di regina" as his guiding narrative. Given that Queen Elizabeth II was possibly the most photographed individual of her time—leaving even ubiquitous celebrities like the Kardashians and Tom Brady in the dust—the focus on photographs and photographers offers an innovative lens through which to view her life.

Narrating this exploration is actor Charles Dance, often appearing on screen himself, illuminated by carefully arranged artistic lighting. The film doesn't just skim the surface but takes us into the depths of royal photography. In the early years, photographers like Marcus Adams and Cecil Beaton were chosen to capture the Queen and her family. As time went on, other acclaimed photographers, including Brian Aris, Jason Bell, Julian Calder, Chris Levine, David Montgomery, and John Swannell, were entrusted with the task. These artists share intimate and enlightening observations throughout the film. One even notes that after photographing the Queen, no other subject could ever intimidate him.

In an otherwise focused documentary, the film takes a somewhat unexpected turn with an interview featuring American actress Susan Sarandon. Her personal recollection of meeting the Queen seems aimed more at captivating American viewers than adding substantial value to the overarching narrative of the Queen's life.

Clocking in at a crisp 74 minutes, the film is an engaging juggling act. It effortlessly balances commentary on the portraits, insights from the photographers who took them, and a deeper understanding of the globally celebrated woman in front of the lens. From her youthful coronation day, with its dazzling eleven-pound bejeweled crown, through a life marked by innumerable changes, Queen Elizabeth II consistently exuded an air of style, dignity, and grace. And as the carefully curated images of her in the film attest, what you see is a mirror reflection of her true self.