Thursday 29 September 2016

The Queen of Ireland review: All hail the queen of hearts - Panti Bliss

Panti Bliss shines in Conor Horgan's fine film

Paul Whitington

Published 23/10/2015 | 07:00

Royal success: Panti Bliss shines in documentary Queen of Ireland
Royal success: Panti Bliss shines in documentary Queen of Ireland

In the euphoria that erupted around Dublin Castle on May 22 last, when it became clear that the Irish electorate had said a great big yes to gay marriage, the image that stuck in my mind was a photo of Panti Bliss standing tall and making the 'V for victory' sign, backed by an adoring crowd. She looked, as she noted herself, "absolutely f***ing fabulous", and seemed on that wonderful day the symbol, soul and living embodiment of a new and changed Ireland.

4*

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In Conor Horgan's excellent documentary The Queen of Ireland, Panti and her alter ego Rory O'Neill act as a kind of microcosm for the stories of an entire generation of Irish gays. Horgan began making the film back in 2010, following Rory and Panti around as they went about their glamorous business, but the director admits that his project lacked a focus until 'Pantigate' and the referendum came along.

It was Rory's incendiary appearance on Brendan O'Connor's RTÉ chat show last year that brought him to the attention of a wider audience, and things got good and messy when the lawsuits started flying. But there's a lot more to Queen of Ireland than that, because Horgan uses O'Neill's broader experience as an Irish homosexual to examine our country's changing social landscape.

O'Neill grew up in Ballinrobe, County Mayo at a time when tolerance for sexual diversity here was very thin on the ground. And though it's obvious from faded home movie clips that his childhood was happy, he knew he'd have to leave home in order to fulfil himself. He went to Dublin, then Tokyo, where he began experimenting with drag. In 1995 he was diagnosed with Aids, which at that time was still considered a death sentence. Instead of dying, Rory returned to Ireland, became a key player in Dublin's booming underground club scene and, with the help of designer Niall Sweeney, dreamt up the character of Panti.

That creation has become so convincing that she and O'Neill really feel like distinct and different beings. Panti has grown more demure and refined as she's gotten older, and in Queen of Ireland we see her present the raucous Alternative Miss Ireland contest, sitting with her legs crossed at the side of the stage and looking like a particularly glamorous member of the Irish Countrywoman's Association.

Panti is rarely interviewed directly by Horgan in his film, and remains aloof and glorious, a huge, smiling symbol of good-humoured subversion. O'Neill himself talks quietly and almost shyly about his life, and is very careful to credit the people who helped him create his spectacular alter ego. He recalls what it was like when he first arrived in Dublin in the late 1980s, when public expression of gayness was just not possible and the threat of violence was always in the air.

Horgan's film uses archive footage to remind us of the shocking murder of Declan Flynn in Fairview Park in 1982 by a gang who targeted him because of his orientation, and were later allowed to walk free. That event triggered a slow reaction that would culminate in this year's referendum landslide.

In recent times Panti Bliss has been the equality campaign's battering ram, and her contribution to last May's victory cannot be overstated. At one point we see her address a crowd at the 2009 Dublin LGBT Pride Parade. "Anyone can get married in this country except you," she says. "Any soccer hooligan, any fascist, any murderer, any sex offender can get married, but you cannot."

And the most emotional moments in Queen of Ireland come when Panti makes her 'noble call' on the stage of the Abbey Theatre, describing with compelling clarity what it feels like to be constantly judged for being gay.

She is the star of Conor Horgan's film, which ends in triumph as Panti returns to Ballinrobe to perform for her parents, family and friends.

The Queen of Ireland

(15A, 86mins)

4 Stars

Irish Independent

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