The Queen of Ireland – Film Review by Shane Larkin
Director: Conor Horgan
Writers: Conor Horgan, Philip McMahon
Well he was never going to pursue a career in veterinary medicine, father and country vet Rory Senior concedes with a chuckle early on. But in a year that has seen Ireland actually setting progressive precedents (who’d’ve thought?) by becoming the first country to enact same-sex marriage by popular vote, Rory O’Neil Jr’s cultural importance and the national pride he inspires is pretty difficult to overstate. Conor Horgan’s documentary is both a rousing document of a proud moment in our history, and a more intimately inspiring tale for those feeling like they don’t belong, a heartfelt instigation to explore and celebrate the gifts that come with one’s individuality.
The film charts Rory’s lonely upbringing in Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo in the early 70s (where, among other things, he won a Bonny Baby competition), before springboarding off on a globe-hopping recounting of the development of his career and life as drag queen Panti Bliss, the self-described “gayest thing in the world”. Along with his HIV diagnosis and his return to Dublin’s underground scene in the mid-90s, numerous events and public figures considered touchstones in the rocky cultural and political history of LGBT rights in Ireland are woven into the tapestry of Panti’s story, painting a brief but effective picture of Irish life for much of the gay population during this time.
Around the halfway point, real-life intervenes in a big way and the film’s narrative thrust shifts considerably. Horgan traces Panti’s journey to the forefront of Irish cultural and political rhetoric in the wake of “Pantigate” and the run-up to that historic marriage referendum, and these events are pretty seamlessly integrated into the film’s groove. The broader implications of the Yes vote are wisely underplayed in favour of staying with Panti, letting her dictate the story. We read the emotions on her face as the camera follows her during the celebrations in Dublin, capturing her interactions around town, ranging from heartfelt congratulations and expressions of gratitude to a bit of shoulder-rubbing with politicians looking for a few choice photo ops.
Up-close-and-personal though it may be, I don’t know if we get much of a sense of what makes Panti really tick. But then as we’re told by long-time collaborator Philip McMahon, she’s exceedingly laid back. There’s a sense that all of this activity seemed to coalesce around her in a strange way and part of her charm and appeal is how gracefully and creatively she takes it in her stride. She never really asked to represent anyone – it just happened. And Rory’s as tickled and baffled as anyone else by the notion of all of this happening to a man from Ballinrobe “dressed as a giant cartoon woman”.
Arriving at the tail end of such a jubilant year for the country, “The Queen of Ireland” is stirring stuff. Not just a celebration of an historic advancement of equal rights, but ideally a reminder to consider ways that the notion of equality can be brought closer to being a reality for everyone. Ultimately though, the film’s aspirations are grounded in triumph of a more personal nature. It’s about that Bonny Baby from Ballinrobe who travelled halfway round the world to find a sense of belonging, acceptance, and self-determination in Panti, picking up a fair few laughs along the way. And the heartening triumphance of returning home to that remote little town to a warm embrace, and to find everyone laughing along with him.