The most amazing thing about The Queen, directed by Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things) is that Frears has taken a concept that angled sharply toward "made-for-tv movie" territory and turned it into a remarkable, insightful and subtle masterpiece of a film. The Queen, which stars Helen Mirren in a performance that's generating Best Actress Oscar buzz, is about the week or so after the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales, in August of 1997. Tony Blair, the Labour Party candidate, had just been elected in a landslide victory by an overwhelming majority of British voters. The public's sympathy and mindset was most assuredly tipping toward the common man, and idolizing the royals had fallen out of favor. Diana, who was always far more popular that her husband, Prince Charles, had ditched her marriage and a future throne and was spreading her wings as a free woman, constantly working in support of her various charitable causes while hob-knobbing with a different set of royalty -- celebrities. And the people of Britain -- indeed, the world -- just couldn't get enough of Diana, even after the divorce.
It was in the midst of this political climate that Diana's sudden death in a high-speed car crash in a Parisian tunnel shook the world, and Queen Elizabeth II (Mirren) was ill-prepared to grasp the tremendous impact Diana's death would have. In the days immediately following Diana's death, the Queen strictly followed royal protocol around deaths outside the family. Because Diana and Charles had divorced, even though she was the mother of the future king and retained the title "Princess of Wales," she was no longer eligible for the honorific "HRH" (Her Royal Highness) and therefore was not, by tradition, entitled to a State funeral.
Diana had long been a thorn in the Royal Family's side; she was headstrong and independent, in a marriage that constantly forced her to bow to tradition. Her refusal to toe the line -- and her ever-growing popularity, even after the divorce -- stung as well. In death, just over a year after divorcing Prince Charles, Diana continued to cause trouble for the Royal family, but they were walled up at the Queen's retreat, Balmoral, too far removed and isolated to realize the mood that was brewing in London. Blair, meanwhile, four months into his new job as Prime Minister, hadn't yet hit his stride, though he was still riding high on the waves of his election success. Blair, who was much more attuned to issues like public perception -- and less bound by duty and tradition -- found in Diana's death a cause to serve as the jumping off point into his new role as the defender of the populace. His clash with the Queen over her public handling of Diana's death is the fulcrum around which the tale revolves.
That's what's on the surface, but underneath all that lies the real story: The clash of values between elected officials versus those born to the privilege; the wealthy versus the common man; duty versus self, tradition versus change. There are dozens of angles that could have been taken in telling the story of Diana's death and its aftermath; by choosing to focus on the Queen and the battle of wills between her and the brash, popular Blair, Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan (who also scripted The Last King of Scotland) keep the film from turning maudlin. The clash between the modern Blair and the stalwart monarch is used here as a mirror reflecting broader societal changes, with Diana's death as the catalyst.
Morgan's script humanizes Queen Elizabeth II in quite a remarkable way, showing her not as the stuffy last arbiter of an institution that should be mothballed and put away, but as a real person, giving us a peek at the motivations underlying her initial reluctance to publicly acknowledge Diana's death -- and life. Morgan puts Elizabeth in perspective: This is a Royal who came of age during World War Two, and who, whether she liked it or not, had to assume the throne at the age of 26 upon the death of her father, George VI, in 1952. When she was born, she was only third in line for succession of the Crown; no one -- least of all Elizabeth herself -- could have anticipated that she would eventually be one of the longest-ruling monarchs in the history of the UK. At the time of Diana's death in 1997, Elizabeth had been on the throne for 45 years, and had seen ten Prime Ministers, beginning with Winston Churchill. It doesn't take a great leap of imagination, therefore, to imagine that when the newly elected Blair took it upon himself to tell her she was wrong in how she was publicly responding to Diana's death, she might not have taken him quite seriously, at least at first.
When the Queen finally decides that Blair is right, it's not because her opinion of Diana has changed, but because she's finally come to realize -- especially after Blair informs her that a poll shows that one in four of her subjects is in favor of disbanding the monarchy in light of the royal lack of acknowledgment of Diana's passing -- that she no longer has her finger on the pulse of the people she is supposed to lead. When the Queen finally emerges and goes to view the sea of flowers her subjects have left for the dead princess, and sees the cards with notes like "They didn't deserve you," her pain, though restrained, is evident. This is a woman who has uncomplainingly put duty to her country and her people before self for her entire life; who assumed the mantle of the throne after she saw the responsibility kill her own father; who has lived her life in service to her country. Along came Diana, this upstart of a princess, who never quite fit in, who caused the Queen's blood pressure to rise with her constant rejection of the very traditions in which the Queen had been raised -- and the people of Britain adored Diana, both in life and death. It must have pained the Queen deeply that her people viewed Diana as a victim of the royal family into which she married.
Apart from the painstakingly researched and written script (look for Morgan to get an Oscar nom for Best Original Screenplay) and the tight, careful direction (Frears will very likely get a Best Director nod as well), it is Mirren's fine performance that carries this film to the level of art. It takes guts to portray a living figurehead like Queen Elizabeth II, and Mirren captures her essence without ever stooping to caricature. This is a deeply felt, deeply respectful performance, and Mirren captures the emotion beneath the restrained surface without ever resorting to being garish.
Michael Sheen's performance as Blair is also worth noting. Sheen previously played the boyish, popular Prime Minister in The Deal, a Channel 4 drama about Blair's earlier history, which also paired Frears and Morgan as director and writer. Sheen nails Blair's passion and earnest enthusiasm, and Helen McCrory also does a fine job as Blair's wife, Cherie. James Cromwell takes on the challenge of an American playing a British royal, Prince Philip, and Alex Jennings gives a nice turn as the befuddled Charles, who actually feared, in the wake of Diana's death, that some angry citizen might take out their grief by shooting him. Sylvia Sims nicely portrays the Queen Mother, who advises her daughter to uphold tradition rather than cave in to public sentiment.
Frears and Mirren give us a fascinating peek behind-the-curtains of the monarchy at a crucial time in its history, and the overall effect is so well done that you can't help but walk away from the film feeling that you've seen a side of Queen Elizabeth II that you've never seen before. Mirren deserves every accolade she's getting for taking on this role, and for doing it in such a way that the enhances the dignity of the real queen with her performance. A British film that seeks to show the real people behind the royal curtain rather than simply lampooning them is a rare thing, and Frear pulls it off beautifully.
For another take on The Queen, check out Erik's NYFF review of the film.