HBO's Queen of the World Is a Head-Scratchingly Empty "Portrait" of Elizabeth II

TV Reviews Queen of the World
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HBO's <i>Queen of the World</i> Is a Head-Scratchingly Empty "Portrait" of Elizabeth II

For some reason, the title of this documentary led me to believe it was going to be about Queen Elizabeth II. I was looking forward to that, because she’s an interesting figure for a lot of reasons.

I’m presently not sure what it is about. It’s either about What Is The Commonwealth, or it’s about Meghan Markle’s bridal veil. I think.

HBO’s (with ITV) portrait of Queen Elizabeth as head of the Commonwealth and what that signifies and how it works is not really a portrait and it doesn’t really explain anything. It’s kind of a sketchily-curated slideshow in which several of the images are interesting, but the order is scatterbrained, some of the pictures are copies of the same picture, several seem like they belong in another slideshow, and by the end you’re wondering why the Prime Minister of India doesn’t usually attend Commonwealth summits (is it because they won’t allow his wife to sit down?) and reflecting that you learned a lot more about the Queen and her role on the global stage from watching The Crown.

What I learned from Queen of the World is that director Matt Hill and writer/producer Robert Hardman are apparently extremely timid beings. One has the incredibly uncomfortable sense throughout this thing that they’ve all signed something promising to present reverent, removed, glossed-over footage of the royal family from “this historic year” (2017 was of course the year of… what? Prince Harry’s wedding to a divorced person? Admittedly significant in light of the fact that Uncle King Edward abdicated the throne because they wouldn’t let him do likewise, with fairly direct personal consequences for the Queen) without any focus or depth whatsoever. There’s some footage of the Queen’s world tour in the 1950s, some of which came from the family’s personal archives. There are a few interesting captured moments of her coronation, the christening of the yacht Britannia, stuff like that. There are many curiously defensive mentions of Buckingham Palace’s many gestures of inclusivity and opportunity (a cadre of hospitality industry hotshots from the Caribbean serve callaloo to reportedly raucous acclaim; the Queen briefly speaks to someone from Antigua; Camilla Parker-Bowles is passingly interested in a fashion designer from Sierra Leone). Look, I 100% believe that Queen Elizabeth is interested in the rest of the world. She’s seen a hell of a lot more of it than most of us ever will and has been tirelessly connected to the Commonwealth since she was in her mid-twenties. It’s technically interesting to know that the Palace is hosting international fashion shows and giving young hotel chefs a roller coaster ride training session in a household where garlic isn’t allowed. But… I mean… um… wha?

If you didn’t know that the wattle flower is the national blossom of Australia, then at least you get clear on it, because they repeat the footage of Markle pointing it out twice. Whew. You also get not one but two glimpses of Prince Philip’s royal butt as he cavorts on a water slide with the kids several decades ago. (Thankfully, he has retired from public life, so no one from the Caribbean or Africa was treated to any of his signature “cultural” quips here. So. Very. Awkward.) I reckon because it’s a documentary film there are serious and well-considered reasons for all the artistic choices, but I’d be bluffing if I claimed I knew what they were.

If you count up all the seconds of footage including the historical ones, I think it’s possible that Queen Elizabeth is in more of it than any other single individual? I think. But in all seriousness, “unprecedented intimate access” to the Windsors must always be taken with a grain of salt. There is no such thing. And that’s fine, but given there’s no such thing, it’d be cool if documentarians stopped claiming it exists. You know, like maybe that footage really is of the Loch Ness Monster, but… well, anyway.

Dogged devotees of the British royal family will perhaps ignore the slightly vapid voiceovers and the disorganized presentation of generally unremarkable conversations and be contented with the glimpses of archival footage and the big denouement, which seems to be the meeting of Commonwealth heads at which Queen Elizabeth expresses her hope for “continuity”—a term which here means, “Even after I am deceased, I expect England to be the Head Honcho of the Commonwealth; Vote for Charles!” Personally, I’m scratching my head on this one.

Queen of the World premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on HBO.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.