When director Conor Horgan began shooting a documentary about Irish drag queen Panti Bliss (aka Rory O’Neill) in June of 2010, who could have foretold quite the story it would become or the national treasure that would emerge like an exotic bird to stand with the politicians at Dublin Castle on May of this year as the YES victory on gay marriage was celebrated.
By topping and tailing the film with direct-to-camera addresses by Panti, the audience is invited in to share her story as it has unfolded from the very beginning. That this ‘giant cartoon woman’ found herself an accidental figurehead for Ireland’s LGBT community is a terrific story and The Queen of Ireland shows us how the little boy from Ballinrobe, County Mayo would transform into Panti Bliss, ‘a clown, a court jester’ that would become an inspiration to so many. O’Neill’s story is wonderfully and bravely told by both Horgan and O’Neill himself. He’s not afraid to lay it all out there and his interviews are deeply personal, moving and emotional.
From home movies showing O’Neill and his siblings playing in their garden as children in Ballinrobe, to the bright heady lights of London and Tokyo and the drag scene in which Panti Bliss was conceived, Horgan showcases a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis to a bright neon accepting world, albeit abroad. A return to Dublin in the 1990’s to a new underground LGBT movement following the decriminalisation of homosexuality, makes for an intriguing subject and tells a wider story of what it was like to be gay in Ireland then and and how far the country’s stance has shifted since.
Beautifully paced, the film shifts effortlessly from personal stories from O’Neill’s family, friends and collaborators to his activism, growing the scale of the story while never losing that personal approach. Detailing the events of January 2014 when Rory gave an interview on The Saturday Night Show on the subject of homophobia, he found himself in very hot water, kick starting ‘Pantigate’ and a speech that would echo around the globe when Panti took to the Abbey Theatre stage.
The film poignantly explores the moment when the impact of it began to shake the ground and you witness not only the gay community but the community of Ireland and its diaspora, heralding Panti as a force to be reckoned with on LGBT rights. Moving to the YES campaign before the vote, Horgan shows Rory going door-to-door in Dublin literally asking strangers to accept him as he is and to give them the same rights as heterosexuals. Again it’s delicately handled by Horgan and O’Neill himself is such a smart articulate guy, that every segment is engrossing and thought provoking.
Everyone should see the Queen of Ireland. It not only celebrates Panti Bliss, it celebrates all of us, gay or straight, no matter how different you are to the person standing next to you. The fact that it’s to be shown in our cinemas makes perfect sense. It is huge in scope in terms of its story and its message and of course Panti is larger than life itself, entertaining, funny and insightful. The Queen of Ireland also packs an emotional punch that will stay with you long after and have you recommending it to your nearest and dearest. Go see.
You can catch my interview with Rory O’Neill and Conor Horgan for TheMovieBit.com here