Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral was pure cinema
For millions of her subjects, the queen’s reign ended in the same place it began: on a screen. When the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 was broadcast on television, it was the most elaborate outdoor broadcast ever attempted. And the feature documentary on the event – A Queen is Crowned, shot separately in color by The Rank Foundation – became one of the most commercially successful films of the year.
Almost 70 years later, his funeral had movie-like power. Although transmitted live, there were shots here with the beauty, gravity and charge of great cinema – the kind of images that feel not just like a record of historical events, but like history itself- same.
The filming process itself had been extensively planned. Coverage discussions had been going on among TV executives for nearly 40 years: It would be the first state funeral of a monarch to be filmed, although Winston Churchill’s state funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1965 was were broadcast live on television. This event was absorbed by the BBC on 40 cameras, with a further 45 operated by independent production companies: today 213 involved, stationed around Westminster Abbey, St George’s Chapel and Westminster Hall.
Surely the most striking shot came directly above the abbey window, offering a bird’s eye view of the queen’s coffin, with the sacrarium at the bottom of the framework and the nave at the top. This dizzying top-down angle had been used by broadcasters before, at the Prince and Princess of Wales’ wedding in 2011 – the first time a camera had been installed in this location in the building.
But today, that perspective has been used to express both the extraordinary magnitude of the event and the human-scale sense of loss at its core, while subtly acknowledging the consolations in these times of grief for the the Queen’s own Christian faith.
The wonder was partly in the framing, but also in the movement, the camera slowly descending from a position that seemed to encompass the entire abbey to a position where only a hundred mourners were apparently present. During this extraordinary maneuver – apparently performed with a camera that physically descended into space, rather than a fixed-in-position camera equipped with a zoom lens – the coffin itself remained the unwavering center of the picture.
It was a view denied even to those physically present – much like the quiet, contemplative zooms in on the coffin itself, who chose not only the crown jewels, their gemstones glistening under the lights almost like tears, but also the wreath of flowers and herbs. cut from Buckingham Palace Gardens and accompanying handwritten note – “In loving and devoted memory. Charles R.” – of his eldest son, and our King of 11 days. It was ritual and intimacy in one frame – another flawless piece of photography that spoke to the meaning of the event as powerfully as its content.
The architecture of Westminster Abbey itself has also been wisely deployed, and not just in the static shots and slow pans through its Gothic interior. During Liz Truss’ reading, a medium close-up of the Prime Minister in the Abbey’s 16th century pulpit was followed by a shorter but incredibly powerful shot of the PM in the distance, with the foreground dominated by a golden icon of Christ painted in the Byzantine style, suspended from a pillar in the nave and lit by a candle on each side. (Although it may be an 11th-century relic, the work is actually by contemporary Russian painter Sergei Fyodorov.)
There was a sharp and perhaps rather mischievous juxtaposition of the ephemeral and the eternal: while politicians come and go (a fact few understood better than the queen), ceremony and ritual endure. And those images, though captured on the fly, seemed built to last.