It’s time for another Scene It? post and for this one I have chosen one of my favourite moments from The Phantom Menace: the Queen-reveal. It’s probably not technically a single scene but it is definitely a single story-beat. It is great in a number of ways, not least in how it combines a strange sense of humour and suspense. The main purpose of having a look at this moment in The Phantom Menace is to give some attention to how important it is for Padmé Amidala to claim her own role, her own name and her responsibilities. I will be making quite a distinct difference between Padmé as a private person and ‘Queen Amidala’ as official role. The joining of these two is very much key to this whole scene.
When I watched The Phantom Menace for the first time I wasn’t spoiled about this and hence was genuinely surprised by it. It took me a few more times watching TPM before I had completely figured out who played who. By now it’s part of the well-known trivia of the film that Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley kept switching positions, but it’s still a great moment, story-wise. Let’s get a closer look at it.
‘I will take back what’s ours.’ is one of the first lines Padmé Amidala says in this scene. At this point Padmé has morphed back into her royal personage, confronting everyone present with a steely and confident gaze. She has settled on a plan and is determined to see it through. This moment is beautifully staged as well, with Queen Amidala and her two Handmaidens, which represent a source of confidence, ability and strength, forming a front of strength, with both Panaka and Qui-Gon Jinn standing opposite this. Queen Amidala has her Handmaidens backing her, securing her through their presence and allowing her to continue with her plan. From this position of strength she is able to break with tradition and ask for Jar Jar’s help. For Queen Amidala it is always about ‘us’ and ‘ours’, partially because Queen Amidala is a public figure and works for her people, but also because as a Queen she is made up of more than one person, namely Padmé and Sabé. Shortly preceding this scene Queen Amidala has also accepted Jar Jar and the Gungans as part of her people and therefore also includes them when she says ‘ours’.
From there we jump to Jar Jar discovering an empty Gungan City and him leading the others to the Sacred Place. Before this we have seen Qui-Gon Jinn proclaiming he and Obi-Wan cannot use their power to help her, which very much implies he doesn’t think very much of her plan. Although I love Qui-Gon Jinn as a character, it has to be admitted that throughout The Phantom Menace he sports a bit of a superiority complex when it comes to Padmé or the Queen. Padmé is a young girl, a curious, opinionated and intelligent one, but a girl nonetheless in his eyes. Qui-Gon has hardly interacted with Queen Amidala, hence why his response to the reveal at the end of the scene is so beautiful. He is an example of how even those with open eyes can stop themselves from seeing clearly through their prejudices. Jar Jar is another great example of a character people underestimate this way.
When they arrive at the Sacred Place those keen-eyed amongst you can see that Padmé has switched positions with Sabé, who now takes up the role of and is introduced as Queen Amidala of the Naboo. The question is why Padmé chose to relinquish the official role here. Is she worried for an attack and is therefore relying on her bodyguard? Or is she aware of how important this moment is and potentially scared of it? Her later words seem to confirm the former, but as soon as Bos Nass blames Sabé as Queen Amidala for the coming of the ‘mechaniks’ and Sabé has to make her case to him Padmé steps in. Underdressed and inconspicuous, Padmé steps forward and claims her role:
‘I am Queen Amidala.’
This is an important moment in a number of ways. Of course it is important plot-wise, because there needed to be a reveal of this switching that had been happening, before the final battle can take place. However, for Padmé this is also a very important moment. Throughout TPM her queenship has been a danger to her and, arguably, a burden. She has a price on her head, has had to constantly travel and hide, and has been unable to confide in anyone except her Handmaidens. She has also been failed by the one institution she relied on, the Senate. Padmé is not truly in a position of strength since, by taking over her planet, the Trade Federation has stripped her off much of her power. Her name is all she has and she freely shares that with Sabé. Yet although Sabé was supposed to be queen here (since it was a dangerous moment), when it came to it, Padmé felt too strongly about this alliance with the Gungans to not plead for it herself, no matter what the cost. Queen Amidala has always appeared strong throughout TPM with Padmé only showing fear and sadness when under the guise of a Handmaiden. In now stepping forward as Padmé and claiming the title of Queen Amidala for herself, Padmé unites her sensitive, emotional side with her decisive and strong side for a single purpose.
Padmé knows that not only her civilisation is at stake but also that of the Gungans. As she puts it:
‘If we do not act quickly, all will be lost forever.’
Perhaps unlike Qui-Gon Jinn, Padmé knows when it is necessary to be humble. Rather than claiming the title of Queen for herself and demanding the Gungans work with her, she, quite literally, takes herself down a notch. Padmé doesn’t see herself as better than Boss Nass, a leader who is, through the environment within which he lives, very actively marrying his natural and emotional self with his role as leader. He is backed by nature and signs of ancient civilisation and rather than try to put herself above this, Padmé follows that model. Her claiming of her high position is combined with her lowering herself to her knees. This is crucial in Padmé’s development, both as a politician and a person, because throughout the rest of her political career, in Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith and The Clone Wars, she is shown siding with those who are put down, are belittled and silenced. As the years have progressed I have seen this moment in TPM as the starting point of Padmé’s determination to not let power go to her head. Here she puts herself in danger, does the unexpected and, with her honesty and clear goodwill, makes it all come to a good end.
One of my favourite moments in this scene is the shot of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn giving each other a sideways glance after realizing they have been well and truly fooled. Personally I do believe this supports the idea Padmé kept her private and official side very much separate, making it harder for even Jedis to see through her. Bringing those together now makes her a stronger person, one who is victorious in the end. Against everyone’s expectations Padmé forges an alliance with the Gungans and leads her people to freedom. In order to do so she has to claim her own power and her own role in what is happening. The reverse side of her bringing together her private and official personas is that throughout the other two Prequel films Padmé accepts her love for Anakin, which brings her a whole load of problems she otherwise wouldn’t have had, but that’a a whole other post. However, Padmé’s care for those she deals with is what makes her the strong politician she is.
Sabé should not be overlooked here. She is, sadly, one of those characters who often slips into the background in discussions of TPM even though she is crucially important to letting many of the films events happen. Were it not for her Padmé would not have set a single foot onto Tatooine and met Anakin. We don’t get much of a background for Sabé in TPM itself, although she was developed more in what is now the Legends. What the film does show us, however, is that here we have a highly trained and intelligent young woman, capable of stepping into a Queen’s shoes and stepping out of them again. You don’t often see female characters who are as dedicated to their duty and their Queen. When Padmé claims the role as Queen for herself Sabé in no way responds negatively to this. She is ‘my decoy, my protection … my loyal bodyguard‘, not the Queen. What the way Padmé describes her tells us is that the relationship between her and Sabé was very close. Sabé has united her personal and public self within her duty as well, being loyally devoted to Padmé while taking on the cold exterior of Queen as well.
A lot more could be said about this whole sequence in The Phantom Menace. It’s a crucial scene, both for the film itself and for the whole Prequel trilogy. Padmé goes through some major development here and I haven’t even touched on everything that could be said. What do you think of this scene? Do you agree with me on its importance?