The Queen of Ireland: Review

This work was originally published in the University Observer in October 2015, both online and in print.

Director: Conor Horgan

Starring: Rory O’Neill (Panti Bliss), Niall Sweeney, David Norris.

Release Date: 21st October/Out now.

“My job as a drag queen is to commentate from the fringes, to stand on the outside looking in, shouting abuse.” This is the battle cry of Rory O’Neill, also known as drag queen Panti Bliss, the subject of Conor Horgan’s new documentary The Queen of Ireland. The director’s first feature-length film since his post-apocalyptic drama One Hundred Mornings, it details Rory’s journey from childhood in Ballinrobe, County Mayo, to international recognition as a key gay rights activist.

The documentary captures a huge moment of social change in Ireland, the passing of Marriage Equality on May 23rd 2015. While Panti was at the centre of events, and it plays a huge role in the narrative, it is simply used to punctuate the film by appearing at the beginning and end. Equal emphasis is placed on Rory’s upbringing, his anxieties about growing up gay in small country town, the club scene in 1980s and ’90s, and how he dealt with his HIV diagnosis. Any one of these subjects would have made for an interesting documentary, but The Queen of Ireland manages to balance all of the above without faltering; at no point does a discussion feel like it has overstayed its welcome.

Where the film really succeeds is the way in which humour is balanced with the serious. Comedy underpins every aspect of this film; after a very solemn opening that briefly recounts the events of May 23rd, we are immediately transported to a dressing room in which Panti is getting ready. She converses with herself in the mirror: “Panti,” she says, “you look fucking amazing.” “I know,” her reflection responds. This sets the tone for the rest of the feature. When Panti returns to do a show in her home town of Ballinrobe it is a significant, poignant, and emotional moment for both the character and the audience. When she gets up on stage, however, she immediately tells people that she is “crapping it.” Whenever moments of serious reflection are introduced, they are hushed almost instantly. These two aspects of the film never feel disparate or at odds with each other, instead they come to reflect the contrasting sides of the Ms. Bliss’ personality, and make for an emotional rollercoaster.

Another aspect of the film that must be commended is its editing. Conor Horgan followed Panti around and filmed the events in her life over a number of years, and likely had days worth of footage to sift through as a result. To condense all of that down and make it into a coherent 82 minute narrative is truly astounding; not once does it feel like a moment in Panti’s life has been skimmed or not treated with enough gravitas.

Also of note is the positive message the film carries for LGBTQ+ people. The drag queen’s power, as discussed in the film, comes from taking something that was once used as an insult (being too ‘girly’ or effeminate) and turning it into something powerful, and this is exactly what Panti does, meaning the greatest voice of the Marriage Equality Referendum was a man in a dress. And that’s nothing to be scoffed at.

In A Nutshell: The Queen of Ireland acts not only as document of a changing Ireland, but also as a powerful LGBTQ+ piece about our country’s most outspoken drag artist. Funny, emotional and poignant, this is an unmissable piece of work.

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