“The Queen” is, in one sense, a film like so many others these days, trading in the currency of celebrity, using the hook of quality actors doing fine impersonations of famous people to show its pedigree. This is a successful and award-winning proposition for films — see “Ray,” “Capote,” et al. — but one that’s starting to feel a bit over-used.
“The Queen,” however, does what so many others fail to do: it aspires to relevancy. This film is not in the least bit afraid to dig into recent (and controversial) history; when Princess Diana was killed in an auto accident and the monarchy was rocked by a public backlash. “The Queen” explores the tension inherent in the curious existence of a feudal monarchy within a modern democracy.
Filmmaker Stephen Frears (“Dirty Pretty Things,” “High Fidelity”) and screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Last King Of Scotland”) scrupulously avoid taking a side in the royalist vs. republican debate, while also generously giving time to all views, whether it’s Prince Philip wishing he could set the hounds on the press, or Cherie Blair, pointedly reminding her prime minister husband before an audience with the queen that he, not she, has been elected by the entire nation.
The film begins with Blair’s first day on the job as prime minister, after the Labour Party’s massive electoral victory in May 1997. Blair is summoned for an audience with the queen at Buckingham Palace, and the clash between Blair’s populist, casual tendencies and the queen’s regal aloofness is apparent from the start. While the film is entitled “The Queen,” it’s very much a portrait of these two characters, thrown together by circumstance.
Flash forward to Aug. 31: Calls come in the middle of the night to the royals and the Blairs, informing them of Diana’s death in Paris. The film cuts between the queen, isolated at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, and utterly resistant to making Diana’s funeral a public event, and the prime minister’s office, where Blair instantly recognizes the need, and political gain to be had, by stepping forward to voice the nation’s grief.
As days go by and the Windsors absolutely refuse to show any sign of grief, a tabloid-fueled backlash against the royals gathers steam, and soon a vast majority of the British public are expressing antimonarchist views. TV interviews of mourners gathered around the palace gates show weepy citizens decrying their monarch’s apparent lack of humanity. Elizabeth also watches these same TV reports, rather amazed by the spectacle. When the prime minister calls, urging her to respond to the people’s grief, the queen cuts him off curtly: “Their grief?,” she asks, astonished. The monarchy, she insists, will only show “restrained grief. That’s the way we do things in this country; quietly, with dignity.”
The film’s drama comes from Blair edging her, ever so gently, to accept that this is no longer so. Helen Mirren gives an outstanding performance as the monarch, wearing the same unflappably stoic and aloof expression the world has known for decades. She reveals almost nothing through her face, but for one telling moment, and relies almost entirely on changes in voice to display her emotions: dryly amusing, frostily formal, tartly annoyed, but always commanding. Mirren swallows the emotions whole: Watch her jaw stiffen like rigor mortis at the mere suggestion that a public funeral for Diana might be more appropriate.
James Cromwell, as her husband Prince Philip, gets to vent spleen in the manner his character is known for, an unreconstructed royal who sees no need to pander to the public; as the clamor grows, Philip notes acidly how Diana is “more annoying dead than alive.” The princess’ conception of royalty as part of the media-driven cult of celebrity ran 180 degrees counter to traditionalist views, and no love was lost between Di and the Windsors. And yet, the film shows how by her death, Diana forced a sea change in society, from the “quiet dignity” of Elizabeth’s generation, to the public life and media-spin of her own. Whether this was a good thing or not remains open to question; Diana, after all, was a victim of celebrity, perhaps — dying while being chased by a pack of paparazzi on motorbikes — the most direct victim of all.
“The Queen” is, of course, merely speculation, but in imagining what went on in Balmoral and Downing Street, it’s so well acted and plausibly written that it’s easy to think you’re watching the truth. As screenwriter Morgan has pointed out in Sight and Sound, “In the end, whose words do we have to go on? I think we should be much more irreverent about history and enjoy that.” It’s a sign of a functioning democracy that one can be a bit irreverent toward the monarchy. One wonders if that day will ever come in Japan.
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