`Bertie & Elizabeth' a lesson in admiration

Preview: `Bertie & Elizabeth' is terrific, but it really does a number on Baltimorean Wallis Simpson.

February 04, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Poor Wallis Simpson! History is treating her more and more harshly with each passing year. If things keep going this way, in another decade or so, revisionist historians will be blaming even World War II on the Baltimore socialite for whom King Edward VIII gave up his throne.

OK, I'm exaggerating - but not by much. Wait until you see how Simpson is treated in Masterpiece Theatre's "Bertie & Elizabeth," the story of King George VI (Albert was one of his other names) and his wife, Elizabeth, who today is England's beloved, 101-year-old Queen Mum.

Naturally, British historians never liked Simpson much, but in films made 20 years or so ago, she was at least treated as glamorous and alluring. A decade ago, TV and film scripts started emphasizing her fascist sympathies and the way she dominated her husband, often ordering the former King of England to serve tea to her and her guests. But there was still something intriguing about her.

"Bertie & Elizabeth" gives us an altogether new level of vilification. Simpson (Amber Rose Sealey) is made to physically look vulture-like as the camera harshly emphasizes a long nose and cold, dark eyes. Worse, she is shown cruelly mocking and publicly insulting the young Elizabeth, who is depicted as all sweetness, duty, honor and country. There is a scene in tonight's drama that must have made blood boil in England when "Bertie & Elizabeth" was shown there.

The scene opens at Balmoral Castle with Edward VIII, Simpson and their flashy acquaintances drinking martinis and making fun of the decor. Simpson takes it up a notch as she shifts into a goody-two-shoes voice and says, "No, no, no, we must be nice to the duchess. She's a good person." (Elizabeth was then duchess of York.) Then, in a mock-imitation of Elizabeth, she says, "Do be true to yourself, Bertie. Do be true to England." The guests howl as Simpson says, "We like to call her the dowdy duchess."

While this is going on, the camera shows us the pained reactions of Bertie (James Wilby of Gosford Park) and Elizabeth (Juliet Aubrey of Middlemarch), who entered the room unseen by Simpson and her guests. They handle the mockery with tremendous restraint and composure. Compared to the way Simpson is portrayed in this scene, her ignorant admiration of Adolf Hitler seems like a footnote in the British book of reasons to hate her.

Simpson, of course, is a relatively minor player in the larger scope of this film, which celebrates the marriage of a young man who stuttered so badly he barely could speak in public, and the woman who not only helped him find his voice, but also helped lead England through its darkest hours during World War II. It's hard not to admire these two, and to get caught up in the contrasts that the film sets up between their devotion, selflessness and sense of sacrifice with Edward and Simpson's callowness, hedonism and irresponsibility.

Wilby plays the role of reluctant monarch with just the right mix of uncertainty and determination. Aubrey, who almost could get by on just her sweet face, turns in a wonderfully subtle performance that gives Elizabeth a depth I'd never imagined. Alan Bates and Eileen Atkins play Bertie's parents, and Bates is splendid as the forbidding George V.

Is the history all true? Probably no more or less than the most recent American miniseries on the Kennedys. But, after all, history is mainly stories - and this story is told so well.

Masterpiece Theatre

What: "Bertie & Elizabeth"

When: Tonight at 9

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)

In brief: A royal love story that's hard to resist.

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