“Her Majesty” typifies two erroneous mindsets that are common among would-be filmmakers: first, the tired cry that “there are no good family films out there”; and second, that in order to make a “good family film,” all you have to do is come up with something that has no profanity, sex or violence.
In truth, there are plenty of family films out there. As I write this, “Pooh’s Heffalump Movie,” “The Polar Express,” “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,” “Racing Stripes,” “The Incredibles” and “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” are all still in theaters, all of them at least mildly entertaining, some of them truly great. So the whine that Hollywood doesn’t make enough family-friendly movies is hollow.
The second fallacy is the more troubling one, because it means we get movies like “Her Majesty” — which, sure enough, is devoid of swear words, naked people and explosions, yet which has thinly drawn characters and ridiculous plot twists, not to mention being a rather sleepy, unengaging film anyway. But hey, no naughty stuff!
It is set in the 1950s in beautiful New Zealand, in a small town called Middleton, where class distinctions between the white residents and the aboriginal Maoris have relegated the latter to the most menial, low-paying jobs, while the whites run everything. All of this is of little importance to 13-year-old Elizabeth Wakefield (Sally Andrews), though. Elizabeth is fascinated with the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II, and when the monarch announces she will be touring New Zealand and letting her minions admire her in the coming weeks, Elizabeth sends numerous letters asking her to stop in Middleton so that she and her fellow townspeople may fawn over her.
Much to everyone’s surprise in this quaint, gossipy little town, the queen’s itinerary is altered to allow for a visit in Middleton. Everyone springs into action to prepare for the occasion. Elizabeth’s father Stuart (Craig Elliott), a big cheese at the town’s big cheese factory, thinks the queen should visit the factory, since it is a major source of revenue for Middleton. But the officially appointed welcoming committee, composed of several haughty ladies in hats, decides to direct Her Majesty toward their prized garden of rhododendrons. The school’s marching team, of which young Elizabeth is a member, prepares its routines. All of the town is abuzz. (You can imagine life as a queen: You stop somewhere and your choices are to look at a cheese factory, a bunch of flowers, or some people marching.)
But on the outskirts, there is an elderly Maori woman named Hira Mata (Vicky Haughton) who lives in a dilapidated shack and is the constant target of harassment and pranks by the local children. All little towns have a creepy old house where a “witch” lives; this is Middleton’s. Elizabeth’s older brother John (Mark Clare), about half a step shy of being an honest-to-goodness psychopath, has been one of the major abusers, and Elizabeth befriends the woman out of guilt and shame for her brother’s behavior. Hira Mata teaches her about Maori culture and about the town’s history — all the things that have been overlooked since the Maoris became the minority.
I can offer sincere congratulations to writer/director Mark J. Gordon, in his film debut, for addressing a subject as nobly as he does this one. You sense a real love for New Zealand and its people, and I can respect what Gordon has tried to do, teaching tolerance and all that.
However, the film’s pace is sluggish and its lead actress, young Sally Andrews, is not charismatic enough to carry the movie herself. More importantly, the movie nearly derails in its final half-hour, beginning with the welcoming committee’s embarrassment over Hira Mata’s run-down house, which leads them to hire John Wakefield to set fire to it. Nearly everything that happens from that point on is absurd, the two-dimensional villains and heroes growing laughable in their transparent, unrealistic behavior. What has been a tranquil, unmemorable slice-of-life film becomes a cartoon.
C- (1 hr., 45 min.; )