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The Queen of Ireland

D: Conor Horgan / 82m

With: Rory O’Neill

Unless you’re a part of the Irish LGBT community, or have been to one of her shows in a number of cities worldwide, it’s unlikely that you’ll have heard of Panti Bliss, the drag queen alter ego of Rory O’Neill. And you may think that a documentary about her would focus on O’Neill’s life and his experiences of being a gay man in a country where homosexuality was only legalised in 1993. But there’s a bigger story here, and one that the makers of The Queen of Ireland couldn’t have foreseen would happen when they first began filming.

In January 2014, O’Neill appeared (as himself) on RTÉ’s The Saturday Night Show. He and the presenter discussed homphobia in Ireland and as part of his comments, O’Neill alleged that some individuals in Irish journalism were homophobic. This resulted in the TV station being threatened with legal action, and in order to avoid being taken to court, RTÉ paid compensation amounting to €85,000. And then on 1 February 2014, Panti appeared onstage at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and made a Noble Call speech in response to RTÉ’s actions and about his own personal feelings as a homosexual man living in Ireland. As a result of this, Irish gay rights began to be discussed more openly and more seriously in the Irish government, and in May 2015 the country held the first referendum on same-sex marriages.

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What begins as a heartfelt and very charming introduction to an instantly likeable personality, with plenty of input from O’Neill’s family, friends and associates, would have been entirely acceptable if the movie’s focus hadn’t strayed any further than that. O’Neill is an engaging screen presence by himself, confident, self-deprecating, politically and culturally aware, and quite witty in his approach to the way in which being Panti has made his life so rewarding. And Panti is genuinely good company to spend time with, her outrageous look (“a big cartoon woman”) and friendly, approachable demeanour doing a lot to mollify any notions of prejudice. She’s funny, vivacious, passionate, and more confident than O’Neill is likely to be without the wig and makeup. We see some of her earlier incarnations, and there’s a definite progression in terms of Panti developing her cabaret style, and her character as a whole. It’s informative, enjoyable stuff, and if there’s only one problem with it all, it’s that we don’t get to see Panti onstage in all her glory for any real length of time.

But then there’s that TV interview, and the whole tone of the movie changes, as it becomes a probing examination of LGBT rights in Ireland, and how homophobia, and its endemic nature, comes to be challenged at the highest level. The movie also steps up a gear, and the issue of homosexuality comes to the fore, as O’Neill and Panti find themselves at the forefront of a cause that will lead to a major change in the rights of LGBT people in Ireland. Panti becomes an icon, the unofficial face of change, and through it all we see O’Neill maintain a quiet demeanour that reflects his determination to remain humble and unaffected by his sudden increase in fame and public awareness. He’s also very astute, and very aware of what the referendum will mean if it’s successful, and what it will mean if it isn’t.

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The nature of homophobia is perhaps best revealed in two short passages: the speech Panti gives at the Abbey Theatre (perhaps the best description of homophobia and its effects that you’ll ever hear), and a speech given in the Irish legislature attacking the way in which RTÉ failed to uphold its duties as the national broadcaster. These two speeches are supplemented by shots of emotive posters put up by groups opposing the idea of same-sex marriages, and the movie, without resorting to impassioned hysterical outbursts or relating extreme homophobic rhetoric, makes its point in a much more effective way, allowing the viewer to feel that they’re not being led by the nose into supporting Panti without appreciating both sides of the argument (something that Panti does very cleverly).

Throughout all this though we never lose sight of Panti the entertainer, and O’Neill the individual behind the public persona. It comes as a bit of a shock when, without warning, O’Neill reveals he was diagnosed as HIV+ in 1995, and the awkward effect it’s had since on his dating – just when do you let the other person know, and how much do you really hope it won’t make a difference? But O’Neill is self-assured – and self-aware – enough to ensure that being HIV+ doesn’t define him, and watching him ten years on he looks the picture of health.

After the referendum, O’Neill returns to his home town of Ballinrobe to make a one-off appearance as Panti (also her first appearance there). There are several touching moments with his family, in particular when Panti is getting ready in her parents’ bedroom, where as a young boy she used to watch her mother getting ready and putting on her makeup. It’s an unexpectedly affecting moment, and yet another example of how O’Neill has managed to stay grounded as an individual throughout all the ups and downs of his life so far. And it’s gratifying to see that despite thousands of public appearances and shows, Panti can still be nervous when faced with an audience of people she’s known since childhood.

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What makes The Queen of Ireland so rewarding is the way in which its director has assembled the footage from the various stages of O’Neill’s life, and made each period as interesting and informative as all the others. There’s not a dull, uninteresting moment in the whole movie, and O’Neill is someone the viewer can warm to right from the start. Whatever your views on LGBT rights, or homosexuality in general, this is a movie that promotes an honest, healthy attitude to both sides of the argument, and is to be commended for doing so unreservedly.

Rating: 9/10 – humorous, poignant and candid, The Queen of Ireland treats its central character and the political discourse of recent years in Ireland with a refreshing lack of bias (though it would be very difficult to take a disliking to Panti on any level); without losing sight of the man behind the makeup, Panti’s story is an uplifting one that speaks for itself and is well worth taking a look at.