Katy Hayes | The Sunday Times | October 18 2015
When it comes to film distribution, Universal Pictures is the equivalent of big hair. The Queen of Ireland is getting a bells-and-whistles release, unusual for any Irish film and almost unprecedented for a documentary. After being crowdfunded by Blinder Films on Indiegogo to the tune of €50,000, money came from RTE and the Irish Film Board. There has been substantial advance buzz — and this brilliant documentary deserves it, having a strong narrative line, super visuals and a heart as big as its hair.
Rory O’Neill/Panti Bliss, as both himself and herself, is a great performer. The quips are fast and the social comment is furious. “My job is to say the unsayable,” she says. This was literally true in the case of O’Neill’s comments about alleged homophobia on RTE’s The Saturday Night Show in 2014. This episode forms part of the documentary narrative, although the pertinent segment of the show is cut just before his controversial utterance. The outcry over RTE’s payment of damages led to Fiach Mac Conghail’s invitation to Panti to perform the Noble Call on the stage of the Abbey Theatre. Panti’s speech subsequently went viral on YouTube.
The film also charts the progress of the gay rights movement in Ireland, from an unfailingly polite David Norris arguing his case on TV in the 1970s to the vicious homophobic murder of Declan Flynn in Fairview Park in 1982 to the recent successful campaign for marriage equality, and Panti’s role in that.
“It’s hard to hold prejudice against people you know,” says O’Neill, and one of the many strengths of the film is the access it gives us to his family and background in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo. There are delightful home movies of him as a child playing in the garden. When his parents learn he is HIV positive, his loving father, also Rory, turned to a picture of the Sacred Heart and said: “I place all my trust in you.” When the furore over The Saturday Night Show erupted, “for my parents it was upsetting, but after the Noble Call speech, they became really proud”, he says.
Moving, and moving fast, the story of O’Neill’s journey into Panti, and Panti’s journey into modern Ireland, makes for one of the most absorbing and entertaining Irish films for a long time.
Contributor Mark O’Halloran, talking about the strong feminine side to many gay men, says: “Panti takes all the fear of effeminacy that you have and turns it back on you as strength.” A more nuanced understanding of gender identity and sexual orientation is emerging, as Irish society goes through a number of steep learning curves. And Panti has provided several of those curves.
The Queen of Ireland
15A, 82 mins ★★★★★