Writer/director Mark J. Gordon conceived of his first feature film, HER MAJESTY, as a fairy tale, and, like all good fairy tales, this one has dark undercurrents swirling below the sunny exteriors. In particular, the crushing of the Maori by the British during their annexation of New Zealand and the fallout that has resulted.
Set in 1953, our heroine is Elizabeth (fresh-faced Sally Andrews), a spunky 13-year-old with a passionate approach to life. Be it her drill team, of which she is in the running to be captain, her drill team's coach, for whom she is in the throes of the sort of crush that only a 13-year-old can have, and her idolization of Britain's new queen, Elizabeth II.
In keeping with the fairy tale theme, all things in HER MAJESTY are heightened just a bit into a sort of hyper-reality. Situations are just a bit more pat than reality, close calls are just a bit more hair-raising, emotions, aside from Elizabeth's crush, which is spot on when it comes to adolescent amour, a bit more melodramatic, camera angles are just a bit off-kilter, and colors are just a bit brighter. All the colors that is, except for the ramshackle shack on the edge of Middleton's otherwise carefully manicured appearance. That would be the home of Hira Mata (Vicky Haughton), an elderly, indomitable Maori woman who is the object of scorn, derision, and the occasional rock through the window from the white townspeople.
Elizabeth, though, seeks her out when her brother, a young man with serious anger issues, vandalizes her house. Intending only to leave money her the old woman's mail box to pay for repairs, instead, she's invited into Hira's home and her life. Elizabeth's life is thrown into turmoil when it's announced that new queen will be visiting not only New Zealand, but, in part because of Elizabeth's prodigious letter-writing campaign, also Middleton. A less attractive turmoil ensues when Elizabeth's family discovers that she has befriended the community’s outcast, and that, further, she refuses to disown her. It all comes to a head when the gift that the townspeople are planning to bestow on their sovereign as a memento of her visit may not be theirs to give away.
Gordon accomplishes several things and very well. He blends the palpable fantasy world that Elizabeth, like many other adolescents, lives in with the different sorts of fantasy life to which small-town folk can fall prey, the puffed up sense of self-worth that puts rhododendrons above the dairy industry that pays for them, and that puts parvenues above the native population that they drove out. He's also attuned to the quirky nuances of rural life and showcases them in all their eccentricity without overplaying them.
As Elizabeth, Andrews has is refreshingly spontaneous with a real star quality and a lovely face that is emphatically not of the usual cookie-cutter variety. The story goes that Gordon was looking for someone much older to play Hira, but when he was unable to find one in the age bracket he wanted, he cast Haughton because he was so impressed with her ability. It was a good decision. While she dons the requisite aging makeup and evokes the fragility of an aged body, there is something distinctly youthful in her that renders the putatively centenarian Hira mystical and mysterious, not unlike the Maori culture itself. Gordon explores that culture through Elizabeth’s eyes, not explaining everything, letting the light in Hira’s eyes and some stunning tableaux, including a visit to the gravesite of Hira’s royal father where she asks Elizabeth to hold her feet so that she doesn’t fly away, communicate all we need to know.
HER MAJESTY is a heartwarming film that doesn’t wallow in saccharine. It tells a tough story without apologies, and in the end charms the most hard-hearted in the audience with its sense of joy and of justice.