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SIFF ADVANCE: The Queen of Ireland - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
SIFF ADVANCE: The Queen of Ireland
Directing: A
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A

Here is a documentary that reflects extraordinarily lucky timing. Director Conor Horgan started shooting The Queen of Ireland in 2010, long before Ireland had even an inkling of same-sex recognition of any kind, let alone same-sex marriage. Was Panti Bliss the most famous drag queen in Ireland in the beginning? It would seem so: she hosted the annual Alternative Miss Ireland pageant from 1996 to 2012; opened the "Pantibar" in Dublin in 2007; and appeared out of drag, as Rory O'Neill, on the television program The Saturday Night Show, in 2014. It was on this show that O'Neill accused certain Irish journalists as homophobic, which got the network, RTÉ, threatened with legal action.

Pants Bliss gained national notoriety for this controversy, but gained international fame for a speech given at the end of a performance at the Abbey Theatre, which was recorded, uploaded to YouTube, and had 200,000 views in two days. Then 600,00 views within a month. (To date, the speech has been viewed over 800,000 times.) The video became an international cultural flashpoint focused on Ireland, bolstered the Yes Campaign for same-sex marriage in Ireland, and was a key element in Ireland becoming the first country in the world to pass same-sex marriage by popular vote in 2015.

The Queen of Ireland is thus a triumphant story of overcoming adversity as told through the eyes of a truly unlikely hero, a man "dressed as a giant cartoon woman" (as O'Neill himself puts it) who also happens to be both surprisingly laid back and utterly charming. You kind of expect drag queens to be bitchy, even if only ironically so, but Panti is just plain sweet. Late in the film, when a reporter asks her if she forgives the people who voted no on the referendum, she gives a wonderfully sincere and diplomatic answer about those people's beliefs and how she believes that in time they'll come around.

This is a nearly flawless movie, but if there were any complaint, it would be the lack of context given for the speech in that YouTube video -- something one of the audience members had the presence of mind to ask about during the post-screening Q&A with the director. (Panti herself -- or O'Neill himself -- was actually in Seattle for the festival as well, but due to a power outage the second screening of the film had to be postponed a day, to the exact time O'Neill's flight was leaving Seattle.) It's part of something the play running at the Abbey Theatre at the time, The Risen People, called a "Noble Call," in which a guest speaker gives their personal response to the play. The Risen People is about the 1913 Dublin Lockout, in which workers were denied employment in an attempt to prevent unionization, so the "Noble Call" tends to be about social justice. And they invited Panti to speak in the wake of the RTÉ controversy. And, unlike O'Neill's first appearance on The Saturday Night Show, for this speech Panti insisted on showing up and delivering the speech in drag.

So, although the point is far from being driven hard, The Queen of Ireland's story is deeply rooted in Irish history. Panti tends to be charmingly humble, unselfconsciously so, and goes out of her way to note that Ireland's change of heart regarding gay people and same-sex marriage did not happen overnight, but was some forty years in the making. It's the degree to which the change occurred that is the most surprising, with roughly two thirds of voters choosing marriage equality. It's nearly impossible not to get teary eyed when watching the footage of celebrations, especially for those of us in countries that have passed it already and know how personal and meaningful it really is. And in Ireland there is the added element of it being the first country to do it with a popular vote rather than through the courts.

And through all of this, Conor Horgan had his cameras rolling, presumably starting with a mere portrait of Ireland's preeminent drag queen in mind, and weathering this surprise international media firestorm instead. This is a story several years in the making, with plenty of stock footage from O'Neill's early years to go around. O'Neill is now 47 years old (and looks fantastic), and had this rather left-field monkey wrench thrown into his career at a fairly late stage. He takes it with impressive stride, exuding more gratitude than anything else, right through returning to the very small town he was born in and once wanted to escape, to do a performance for his parents and the rest of their community.

The Queen of Ireland is never anything less than heartwarming, often funny, with charm to spare. It tends to feel like a breath of fresh air when a documentary comes along that is so positive and uplifting, a reflection of massively positive change in the world, the opposite of most films of this genre and an antidote to much of the depressing news in the world. This is the kind of movie you'll leave feeling good and brimming with hope.

Panti Bliss is the unlikely spearhead of the campaign for same-sex marriage in THE QUEEN OF IRELAND.

Overall: A-
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