Elizabeth: The Unseen Queen review – A sweet, moving documentary with a sadly valedictory air to it

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·3 min read
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One of the Queen’s mottos is “I must be seen to be believed”, but of course, at 96 and with “episodic mobility issues”, her public is seeing less and less of her. So someone quite shrewd has obviously decreed it a good idea to dig out the old home movies and release this mostly unseen footage, by way of compensation for the infrequency of her public appearances. For us, it’s a bit of a treat – a platinum jubilee gift. For the Queen, it’s a chance, as she hints in her narrative, to show those who’ve only known her as a nice old lady that she, too, was young once. It’s quite the trove.

The movies, featuring colour footage from the 1940s, were shot by a rather high-born crew – her father, King George VI; the Queen Mother; her uncle, King Edward VIII; her husband, Prince Philip; and the Queen herself. They were enthusiastic cinematographers, these Windsors, and took their little Super 8 machines wherever they went. The movie collection is apparently enormous, and this selection only takes us up to the coronation in 1953, thus also conveniently avoiding the entry of such figures as Andrew, Diana, Fergie, and the Duchess of Sussex. Instead we get George V, the Duke of Kent, and Charles and Anne as playful toddlers.

Most of the footage is as mundane as in any other home movie, to be honest, and the commentary is largely made up of homilies from old Christmas broadcasts and speeches. But there’s a fascination in peeking into the private life of this family: a small Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret doing little dances in the garden; a young and handsome Prince Philip piloting a primitive scooter; Her (future) Majesty cuddling the corgis; and her homely pipe-smoking father, the King of England and Emperor of India, pulling faces and carting his little daughters around the garden (no sign of his legendary foul temper here).

There’s no original sound, but the young Elizabeth comes across as someone who likes to smile a lot, tease a little, and views the world philosophically, making the best of things.

“Service demands sacrifice,” the Queen intones, and rightly so, but looking at the lovely sunset she shot from the royal train on the family’s official 1947 trip to South Africa, you can’t help but think there are perks to be being royal, too. We get to see all their horses and dogs, and, well, yes, extensive country estates, fine town houses and grand palaces, and there’s an unavoidable air of opulence and privilege, which feels a little jarring when you reflect on what the Great Depression was inflicting on their subjects outside the lovely walled gardens and far away from the homely “cottages” in Windsor and the tranquillity of Balmoral.

Edward VIII, “the uncrowned king”, pops up, but there’s no sign of the embarrassing shots leaked a few years ago of the nine-year-old Queen innocently practising the Nazi salute at her uncle’s urging. Instead, we see little fragments from the letters by “your very loving granddaughter Lilibet” to “Granny” – Queen Mary – about Hitler being a “horrid man” to whom “we will not give in”. She is, after all, a living symbol of the greatest generation, now fading away.

It’s all rather sweet and quite moving for her loyal subjects. Sad to say, the programme has a valedictory air to it. In one of the archive newsreels about her father, a clipped voice from the 1950s declares “God save the King.” It is poignant. We’re not quite ready yet to hear that again in earnest, I fear.