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The British royal family is my astrology. I have spent countless hours charting the movements of its members across centuries and fully (though illogically) believe in the power and majesty of their sovereignty. But not even I, who has spent more than one Saturday night down the YouTube rabbit hole of old Fergie and Prince Andrew interviews, could tell you that HBO’s new hourlong documentary on the state of the current British monarchy is particularly riveting. In fact, for a subject as fascinating as Queen Elizabeth II, it’s unfortunately rather dull.
Capitalizing on the momentum of Netflix’s The Crown and the fervor of the spring wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Queen of the World is an insider’s look into how the Windsors are preparing for the future of the royal seat. The serene documentary, essentially a daintily lit puff piece, focuses on how the monarchy is working to cultivate stronger relationships with the Commonwealth of Nations, especially now that a woman of color has joined the royal family. This translates to a lot of brief interviews with excited young people from across the Commonwealth — some young upstarts, some refugees — as they nervously, excitedly and graciously meet their royal idols.
What is the Commonwealth? As Happy Valley actress Sarah Lancashire tranquilly narrates (in a role that sounds more like an ad voiceover), it is a voluntary and organized collection of 53 states that were once former territories of the British Empire: a means of unifying nations with shared language and experiences as “free and equal” following decolonization. In effect, Queen Elizabeth is still the figurative Head of State for 2.4 million people, and thus one third of the global population. (Whoever said the sun never sets on the British Empire is still half right.) The apolitical documentary celebrates this role, virtually ignoring the legacy of colonization and erasing Britain’s imperial cruelty. If you think about it, the title — which is meant to be heartwarming — seems rather Orwellian. The empress has no clothes, it seems. Even an anglophile such as myself who dreams of Merry England can understand this documentary is history written by the victors.
How does the monarchy make amends? It holds an apprenticeship program at Buckingham Palace for young stars of the Caribbean hospitality industry. It hosts fashion shows featuring the artistry of young Commonwealth subjects from around the world. It sends its princes across the globe, whether to greet subjects in the Pacific or meet young students in India. In these moments, the royals, including the Queen, Prince Harry and Prince Charles, come across as warm, if a bit stiff, but there’s no sniveling condescension to be found. (Except maybe from Princess Anne, a delightful, bouffant-donning martinet who doesn’t believe in shaking the hands of those she greets; otherwise all you’re doing is shaking hands instead of engaging in any meaningful way. I get and agree with her point, but the way she communicates this is almost comically toffish.)
Captivating historical footage of the queen in the early days of her reign supplements gushing one-on-ones with young Commonwealth subjects of color, with the doc coming across as an hourlong promo for why the Monarchy Still Matters. Yet, the changes to the Crown appears to be mobilizing a new generation. “Meghan Markle is the daughter of a black woman. She’s entered the royal family,” a young black man named Benjamin Fraser tells the camera. “That gives me pride. And I’m inspired. I mean, there’s some serious movement taking place in this country.”
We’re treated to a medley of topics, from a fluffy sequence on the symbolic lacework of Markle’s bridal veil (flowers representing each nation of the Commonwealth) to a dragging history of the Queen’s ship, the HMY Britannia (and the importance of the vessel in maintaining the Queen’s visibility around the world). That said, Matthew Hill’s camerawork is beautiful and delicate, his lighting bright and inviting.
Despite the fact that Queen of the World can’t shake its own artifice, this doc will appeal to those fangirls and fanboys who woke up early on May 19 and donned their craziest hats to sit at home and soak in the festivities. (Not me, I happened to be in London on the day of their wedding, picking out heart-shaped cheeses at Borough Market in honor of their union.) For most people, royalty is another fiction, a game of heroes and villains. Here you get them in the flesh, but only at a distance. If you really want to get your royal fix, try The Crown‘s barmier cousin The Windsors, the smartest dumb comedy series to ever grace Netflix.
Director: Matthew Hill
Premieres: Monday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)
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