I’ve always been haunted by the clips of the young Queen Elizabeth II that were used in “The Filth and the Fury,” Julien Temple’s great documentary about the Sex Pistols. They were featured in a montage of images to accompany “God Save the Queen,” the thrillingly vandalistic Sex Pistols single released in 1977 to coincide with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. At the time, the song was a singular scandal. When Johnny Rotten sneered the line “She ain’t no human being,” he seemed to be trashing something sacred and doing it in an apocalyptic yet profound way. What he meant, of course, is that if the Queen is no human being, that’s because she reigns over an inhuman system; she’s the monarch of a cruel empire. Yet in “The Filth and the Fury,” released 23 years after the Sex Pistols’ revolt, Elizabeth looked soft, radiant, beguiling, complex. The film propped up the song’s rage and undercut it, too. Even when seen against this barb-wire anthem, it was hard to deny that the Queen of England looked every inch a human being.
That, as it happens, is also the message of “Elizabeth: A Portrait in Part(s),” a documentary composed entirely of archival footage of Queen Elizabeth II, edited together into a free-from impressionistic collage one might call “music video,” though at key points it evokes the playfully pensive stream-of-consciousness of the British director Adam Curtis (“The Century of the Self”) and, at moments, the time-leaping home movie of someone’s dreams.
The someone, in this case, is an unlikely source: the British film and stage director Roger Michell, who died this past September, and who remains best known for directing the gently alluring Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant romantic comedy “Notting Hill” (1999). Michell left several films behind when he passed — “The Duke,” his final dramatic feature, came out just last week — but “Elizabeth,” which has been playing on the festival circuit, has yet to be released. It’s a willfully idiosyncratic movie that feels like a strangely fitting final film, since it amounts to Michell’s cockeyed tip of the hat to the monarchy and what it means. You could have a good debate about what, exactly, he’s trying to express in “Elizabeth,” but what I saw is a level-headed adoration that is neither fussy nor old-fashioned, since it’s cut with an acerbic awareness of the absurdity of royalty in the contemporary age. Sinking into these fleetly edited clips for just under 90 minutes, you take in Elizabeth through Michell’s eyes, and it’s hard not to like what you see.
Elizabeth turned 96 last week, and for decades she has been every inch the proper stuffy British matriarch, but the young Elizabeth, seen in black-and-white clips of her as a girl, or in her early monarch days (she became queen in 1952, when she was 26), is indeed a dream vision. She had the style that would influence stars like Audrey Hepburn, her shimmering diamond tiara worn just so, her shoulders giving off their own gleam of elegance. There’s a clip of Paul McCartney confessing that when he was a teenager, he and his mates all had crushes on the Queen. We can see why; she had a glow. Yet part of the enchantment of her aura is that of an ordinary person assuming the mystique of royalty. She was not Audrey Hepburn or Princess Grace. She looked more like the world’s most ebullient graduate student — the queen next door, a mouse in bloom, with a smile of pure homespun charisma.
Be warned: Unlike the superb upcoming HBO Max documentary “The Princess,” which presents the life of Princess Diana entirely through archival footage but includes a healthy sprinkling of narrated news clips so that we understand the events she lived through and defined, “Elizabeth” has almost no narration. It rarely gives you much context for what you’re seeing: where Elizabeth is at any given moment, the history coursing around her. The film’s portrait of Elizabeth exists, almost defiantly, on the surface — a montage of her patenting the vertical-arm automaton wave, or riding horses, or smiling and shaking hands (which she does at the end of the film 66 times, getting a little younger in each clip, until she’s a little girl), or parading around in hats, or wearing the purple-satin bejeweled crown that she describes as being heavy enough to break your neck. The movie is about the ritualized nature of her existence, but it’s also about how she brought an individuality to every ritual that turned them into personal expressions of the royal impulse.
Michell, working with the splendid editor Joanna Crickmay, keeps ruffling time, inviting us to compare and contrast Elizabeth through the ages. As she gets older, her face becomes at once more benign and more lordly, a face of power, serene like the Buddha’s, with a hidden sense of purpose. Some of the clips may remind you of the 1992 political documentary “Feed,” because they’re cutting-room-floor footage of what was happening just before or after she went on camera, which lets us read between the lines of the official public record. Early on, we see her in middle age, in a pink suit and three rows of pearls, getting ready to do one of her Christmas broadcasts, and what we perceive, apart from the fact that she’s tough and no-nonsense, is how much she loves and believes in her role, and embraces the fact that it is a role. She’s a woman playing the queen, and we can’t help but compare her performance to that of the great actresses who have played her: Helen Mirren in “The Queen,” who probably got closest to her persona (and looks the most like her), and Olivia Colman in “The Crown,” who caught her poker-faced realpolitik wiliness.
Michell, like Adam Curtis, loves his needle drops. A sequence of the Beatles at Buckingham Palace to receive their MBEs in 1965 is cut to “Norwegian Wood,” and there’s a cheeky montage of the royal residences set to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Our House,” and a meditation on the queen getting her portrait painted — and her ambiguous flicker of a smile — set to Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa,” and a sequence set to the haunting cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” by Moby featuring Mindy Jones that poses the question: Are we gazing at a true heroine? Or an enabling figurehead who sat astride the sins of empire? The answer may be both, but the perception that undergirds every shot of the film is the majestic reality that Elizabeth did not choose to be queen. It’s the role she was born into, the way that each of us is born into the role of our lives. “Elizabeth: A Portrait in Part(s)” shows you how she grew into that role, occupying and defining it with literally every move she made, lending it a quality that may come naturally, but not automatically. One is tempted to call it grace.