Heritage Cinema and Implications on Authenticity with Third-Meaning Symbolism in ‘The Crown’

Images: IMDb

“Hyde Park Corner. Go and tell Mr. Churchill and Queen Mary,” said Sir Alan Lascelles, private secretary to the late King George VI of England, over the phone before news broke of the monarch’s death. This codename spawned the inspiration and title for the second episode of the British royal drama The Crown. This episode in particular marks a transition of power, both overtly emotional and politically masked. It is of England as a country in transition, revealing the trivial and dehumanising processes that defines ‘royalty’ at the highest of levels. In particular moments preceding and following the monarch’s death, there exist scenes where royal symbolism and procedure recreate the context that viewers familiar to the history of the country can recognise, which are features of the heritage cinema. But what the viewer leaves with is more than just historical re-creation, but distraction from the narrative at hand. The overt third-meaning symbolism illustrated by the crown’s “alternatives” break the tradition of authenticity prescribed in heritage film because of the contemporaneously inserted dialogue on colonialism and power dynamics.

While not being contained to just England, heritage film and its sub-categories have found significant usable material within English political and cultural history. Belén Vidal, author of Heritage Film: Nation, Genre and Representation, takes great care in describing the formal and narrative elements that critics have assumed throughout English cinema. In particular, “the heritage film has period settings, recurrent locations, slow-paced narratives that enhance character and the authenticity of period detail, and an opulent if static mise-en-scène exhibiting elaborate period costumes, artefacts, properties and heritage sites,” (Vidal, 8). As the genre works to memorialise a time past, certain recognisable features of the eras presented are highlighted for viewers familiar with the national culture, so, “settings and period artefacts become not just a conduit for narrative and characterisation but carry an ideological effect: they help construct a sense of Englishness according to a certain bourgeois ideal of imperial tradition…” (Vidal, 9). The Crown conveys this heritage by presenting symbolism in two opposite yet intrinsically connected settings.

In “Hyde Park Corner,” then-Princess Elizabeth (Claire Foy) and her husband Philip (Matt Smith) take off on a Commonwealth tour, with their first stop in Kenya to quell outcries of nationalism. Back in England, the King’s bedroom holds a countdown to his passing as his health deteriorates. In Kenya, the royals wear the most dignified of fashions, and are outfitted with an ensemble of staff and resources that tend to their every need. In England, King George VI (Jared Harris) is visited by his doctor, servants and assistants in a gorgeously decorated room in Buckingham Palace. Both a world away, but remnants of a monarchy clinging to power. These settings set the stage for the coming symbolism of an England not yet forgotten and represent the authentic features of heritage cinema in the ruling class. 

While heritage cinema may present or explain different features of English life, there needs to be a system of evaluation as to how these objects, settings and narratives create the recognisability for a viewer. One method is described by Roland Barthes in Image Music Text, where he breaks down a scene in Ivan the Terrible (1944) in formal terms with three layers of meaning. The first is that which can simply be taken in on first observation, and “which gathers together everything I can learn from the setting, the costumes, the characters, their relations, their insertion in an anecdote with which I am (even if vaguely) familiar,” (Barthes, 52). This formal analysis is also critical for heritage cinema, as a viewer who is familiar with the historical and cultural representations of a cinema tradition can see those imparted through mise-en-scène.

The second stage Barthes notes “is that of signification,” (Barthes, 52) which can manifest in referential, diegetic and historical symbolism. These take forms that can be observed with a more careful analysis than the first stage, and move away from what the message of the medium is but to how the symbol functions within the narrative. Lastly, Barthes indicates a puzzle as the image still leaves an impression. There still exists something holding him to it, which he calls “a third meaning – evident, erratic, obstinate. I do not know what its signified is, at least I am unable to give it a name, but I can see clearly the traits…’ (Barthes, 53). Also referred to as the obtuse meaning, Barthes specifies that it is beyond language, but not of recognition. The third meaning creates a split from the authenticity heralded in heritage cinema, as it “is discontinuous, indifferent to the story and to the obvious meaning (as signification of the story). This dissociation has a denaturing or at least a distancing effect with regard to the referent (to ‘reality’ as nature, the realist instance),” (Barthes, 61). The effect this distancing has on heritage cinema products implies a function of the creators and complicates the idea of authenticity within the narrative. 

The first of the scenes in “Hyde Park Corner” illustrates a traditional function of the English monarch on a Commonwealth tour, but whose symbolism creates a noticeable break between historical and contemporary meaning. As the King is still not well enough to complete the tour to Africa and Australasia, Princess Elizabeth and her husband embark on his behalf. As they exit the plane in Nairobi, Kenya, the local leaders are lined up to greet them. They stop to give salutations to a Maasai tribal leader (Treasure Tshabalala), who is wearing a headdress that Philip erroneously says is a “nice hat.” He’s looking at the man as if he were an artefact in a museum, and Elizabeth walks back to him and says, “It’s not a hat. It’s a crown.” The royals just grin while the tribe remains solemn. Upon a first view, this interaction is typical of the publicity tours the English royals conducted in their territories, and they are expressly distinct from their Kenyan hosts by their bright white and tan clothing, the enormity of their staff, and the mannerisms in which each are greeted. Beyond this first meaning, the significance comes with Philip’s comment, alluding to colonial disregard and the tenuousness of the English relationship with their territories following World War 2. But once the scene is expected to end, there is instead a close up of the tribal leader’s face with drumming music in the background, and then it directly leads into the title sequence. 

The interaction is strange, and not of the kind that a viewer might think the Queen is supposed to correct. It gives her some additional sort of cultural understanding on a tour where they are trying to quell nationalism, an irony in contradiction with the historical symbolism indicated by Barthes’ second level of signification. The close-up’s presence is not explainable with language as Barthes indicates, but it stays with the viewer as a point of reflection of this Commonwealth tour. While Paul Dave, author of Visions of England: Class and Culture in Contemporary Cinema, may describe this departure as a symptom of “changes in the general perception of ‘heritage’ culture; specifically, they might be read in terms of an intensification of that view of heritage which sees it as a symptom of national, political and cultural backwardness,” (Dave, 33) which appeared in heritage films of the early 1990s, it is not so much resistant to the Old England as it is a qualifying acknowledgement that the monarchy somehow viewed their colonies as equals. With this, the scene ‘actually works to revive the ‘aura’ of the institution of the monarchy with ‘its attendant myths of national unity between the ruling and subaltern classes,” (Dave, 41). It’s build-up directly into the title sequence creates a false equivalency of the actual power dynamics that were present, and this third meaning breaks down authenticity correlated with heritage cinema with a contemporary dialogue on colonialism. 

The second scene in “Hyde Park Corner” marks a transition of power between monarchs and accentuates the symbolism of royal tradition while characterising it as one of tension. The Buckingham Palace corridor that holds the now passed King George VI is dimly lit, with his servants’ heads bowed as they await the arrival of the new Queen. Grief is as tangible as the fog outside, and as Elizabeth rushes in, each family member has to be told to stand behind her. In a voice over and final eulogy, PM Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) ends his remarks with this politically-inflected declaration: “I, whose youth was passed in the august, unchallenged and tranquil glories of the Victorian era, may well feel the thrill in invoking once more the prayer and the anthem, God Save the Queen.” His political rivals are watching and are disappointed with the veracity of the speech. Back at the Palace, Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins) meets Elizabeth on the other side of the corridor, the only one wearing a veil that almost entirely masks her face. She slowly and shakily bows to the new Queen, and through a shot reverse shot sequence that slowly tracks into close-ups on both of the women, two generations stare each other down as they enter a new era. 

While the transition of power is overshadowed by long-lasting processes, such as Elizabeth choosing her regnal name and the distributing of staff, her father’s death puts the burden of the position in the context of one of grief and disillusion. Instead of “The projection of a nostalgic, upper-class version of Englishness solidified into a national myth…” (Vidal, 14), it is not the time of national unity but of operation and political measure. It is not a vulnerable scene which would be revealed to the public, so this departure from heritage narratives takes away from the recognisability that a viewer may experience. 

Both the Kenyan leader and Queen Mary’s black veil are symbols of English colonialism and power but represent a dialogue that goes beyond the scope of public collective memory. While many heritage films use these inserts to create authentic historical narratives, the feigned cultural understanding and the terse grief of Queen Elizabeth reveal a dialogue that can’t be represented by this same symbolism, and require an additional explanation through Barthes’ third meaning. Describing this departure as a modernisation of the genre does not seem compatible with the idea of heritage, which galvanises at the opportunity to show history, English in this case, at its most authentic through mise-en-scène and narrative, and without contemporary commentary. The added layer of meaning brings untimely issues to an era past.

by Lauren Mattice

Lauren Mattice is a junior at the University of Southern California studying film and philosophy.

1 reply »

  1. This is an excellently written piece on the varied ways in which history is represented in artistic creations. I am truly fond of THE CROWN and that stirring scene featuring Dame Eileen Atkins and Claire Foy has been imprinted in my mind ever since I watched it.


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