The Queen of Ireland (2015)

119-the-queen-of-ireland

The bio-documentary The Queen of Ireland (2015) originally set out to focus on drag queen Rory O’Neill and the role he played in Ireland’s referendum to approve same-sex marriage equality. As sometimes happens with good documentary, the film ended up being more than that. It has become a tale about a nation’s rite of passage, a celebration of diversity, and an example of the power of words to overcome entrenched bigotry towards people who appear different.

O’Neill’s stage persona is Panti Bliss, a flamboyant and highly articulate communicator both as a stand-up drag queen comic and a gay rights activist. Filmmaker Conor Horgan is a long time close friend, so O’Neill is comfortable in front of the camera and in turn the camera is kind to O’Neill. The film delves into O’Neill’s background via flashbacks of childhood videos and interviews with people who knew him as a young gay man struggling under the weight of Ireland’s oppressive homophobic laws. O’Neill’s angst-ridden story about coming out as a gay person is a common narrative but in his case he had the talent and family support as his defensive shield against the Irish Catholic bigotry that suppressed the LGBT community.

Two historic moments catapulted O’Neill to fame. He went from being just another ‘gay in the village’ to national attention when he was challenged on prime time television to name prominent homophobic figures…and he did. He skilfully channelled the inevitable media backlash to put gay rights on the national policy agenda, which then provided the platform for what became a globally viral landmark speech about gay rights. Even before the referendum, the public debate was won.

The film undoubtedly succeeds because O’Neill is a fascinating, dynamic and highly intelligent performer. It is skilfully crafted into a fast-moving bio-pic which has all the ingredients of a great ‘one man’s achievement’ story. That is also its greatest vulnerability. Hagiography is a documentary style which unduly reveres its subject. This is not to say that O’Neill is an undeserving hero, but rather one could be forgiven in thinking that he single-handedly changed a nation, without bigotry or insults being hurled by conservative opponents of equality. We know the world is not like that. In Australia we are gearing up for a national hate-fest of historic proportions and there are no inspirational leaders in sight. But lack of balance aside, Queen of Ireland is an important, enjoyable and engaging documentary.

3 half stars
Director: Conor Horgan
Star: Rory O’Neill