On its face, it all seems a bit sordid: a docudrama about the British royal family’s controversial seclusion in the days following the death of Princess Diana. It’s the sort of thing we so rarely see done with any taste or restraint that any attempt to do it automatically makes us wary. But while such things are attempted only intermittently and sensationally on this side of the Atlantic, the critical, often satirical, replaying of recent political events has in recent years become a minor genre on British television, with fictionalized recreations like Jeffrey Archer: The Truth, A Very Social Secretary, The Project, The Government Inspector, and The Deal. And as any genre develops a large enough number of entries, it seems that eventually it must produce a few gems, if only by chance. And when you hear the names of those involved — Helen Mirren, Stephen Frears, Peter Morgan, who worked with Frears on The Deal — you may actually begin to hope …
The good news is that The Queen is not the hatchet-job you might expect. Though it offers a wry, seriocomic interpretation of all parties involved, it walks a delicate line between total irreverence and allowing its subjects their dignity; it imbues them with depth and creates empathy where we might never expect to find it. While some will quibble with its view of recent history or its depiction of certain figures, there is little point disputing the elegance of its construction. There’s no element in this film that’s not carefully planned to advance its thesis and nothing that isn’t effective in achieving its goal.
The film opens with Britain’s May 1997 general election and Labour’s landslide victory over the Tories, making Tony Blair the first Labour prime minister in 18 years and the youngest since the early 19th century (Blair is played by Michael Sheen, who also played him in The Deal and looks like a parody of the man as a goggle-eyed youth). Meeting Blair to extend her formal invitation for him to assume the role of PM, Elizabeth is grand and haughty, taking for granted both the pomp and the security of her position. She’s wary of Blair’s informality and ignorance of protocol; to put him in his place she reminds him that he is her 10th prime minister. And the first was Churchill.
Once the relationship between Blair and the queen is established, we jump ahead four months to that terrible night in Paris. Here, as elsewhere, we see Diana mostly in archival footage — tending her sons, engaged in her charitable work, romping on the beach with Dodi Al-Fayed — but we get a brief glimpse of a lookalike actress jumping into the Mercedes outside the hotel, as motorcycle-mounted paparazzi lie in wait. The scene lasts only a few seconds, but those seconds are important for bringing Diana into the “here and now” of the film, making her death part of its fabric rather than history seen through news footage. The actual incident is handled tastefully, with a fade to black and a moment of silence as her car enters the tunnel.
When the news reaches the queen, she’s both shellshocked and annoyed — Diana has upstaged her once again. This sudden, unplanned-for event shakes her otherwise unwavering self-confidence — she’s so accustomed to following the dictates of protocol that she has no idea how to proceed in an unprecedented situation. As the British public begins its very public mourning process, the queen insists on largely adopting a business-as-usual approach and letting the Spencer family take the lead. As leaders and diplomats from around the world race to publicly eulogize Diana, we see Elizabeth, Prince Philip, and the queen mother gathered in front of the television, half watching their encomiums while making banal conversation.
The film mostly avoids a direct statement about Diana herself, only acknowledging that her public image and her private behavior were not of a piece. We see that the royals have their reasons for disliking her — not only was she headstrong, insufficiently discreet, and enviably popular with the press and the public, but she refused the kind of life they offered, which makes no sense to them, since it’s all they’ve ever known. But Elizabeth’s problem isn’t just that she can’t understand the way people fell in love with the public Diana; it’s that there has been a shift in values that she hasn’t perceived. In 1997, the British people didn’t want to keep a stiff upper lip. Influenced over the years of her reign by the open emotionalism of southern Europeans and Americans and by popular psychological gurus from Freud to Dr. Phil, they feel the need to express their grief publicly, communally, in ways that the fearfully repressed Windsors can only find disgusting.
The queen insists that she knows the British people better than anyone, but she’s lost touch, if indeed she ever had it. She’s finally awaking to a new age, and she must confront the troubling question of whether her actions are damaging the monarchy. Blair comes from a different generation and a different world: Despite his position, he insists that everyone he meets call him Tony, and his attitudes are sufficiently egalitarian that he thinks nothing of cleaning up the dinner dishes while his wife Cherie (Helen McCrory) finishes some work she’s brought home.
The plot hinges on the contrast between the two leadership styles — the queen’s imperiousness and hauteur and Blair’s wily reaction to public opinion. She’s unaccustomed to having her decisions questioned — even Prince Philip and Prince Charles are unwilling to contradict her — and she can’t understand Blair’s insistence on playing to the crowd any more than he can understand her hidebound refusal to consider the political reality. But as time passes each begins to understand the other’s position and learns to respect the reasons for taking a different approach.
There’s a narrative symmetry in the swift reversal of roles. The morning after Diana’s death, we see Blair pause and take a deep breath before answering a call from the queen. But four days later, when the London papers are reporting that 25 percent of the British populace supports abolishing the monarchy, while Blair’s now more popular than Churchill, it is Elizabeth who takes a deep breath before answering Blair’s call.
As Prince Charles, Alex Jennings is a jarring choice in both appearance and manner, having nothing like the prince’s so-very-distinctive features or his poncey carriage (Jennings has experience playing bumbling scions of power — he was George W. Bush in the London cast of David Hare’s Stuff Happens). His Charles comes off as less pompous and more media-savvy than we might expect: While remaining studiously deferential to his mother’s wishes in her presence, he quietly enlists Blair’s aid in reengineering the plans for Diana’s funeral and challenging the queen’s refusal to make any public statement about her death. Thus Blair, despite his own modernizing impulses and Cherie’s staunch anti-monarchist stance, finds himself in the awkward position of seeking to protect the royals from the growing public disdain. When the Tuesday morning news broadcasts report the outcry against their silence, he exclaims, “Who will save these people from themselves?! … Fine. I’ll call Balmoral. Because as prime minister I’ve really got nothing better to do!”
The Queen humanizes all its major characters, except perhaps the queen mother and Prince Philip, who remain a dotty old lady and a stock buffoon throughout. The queen mum gives Elizabeth terrible advice worthy of Bushie, insisting that she must stay the course in the face of public scorn. And as out of touch with her people as Elizabeth clearly is, Philip makes her look like a Betazoid. While the tributes left outside Buckingham Palace increase daily and the crowds of mourners grow to block its gates, he has a constant refrain: “They will come to their senses soon. They have to.” Perhaps even worse than his refusal to accept reality is that he and Elizabeth both seem out of touch with even their own family. After an afternoon hunting a huge stag with Prince William and Prince Harry, he reports to Elizabeth, “One of them even got a shot off.” Yes, but which one? He doesn’t offer and she doesn’t ask, suggesting that to them the two princelings are interchangeable grandson-units.
Though Frears, Morgan, and the supporting cast do admirable work here, the film really rests on Helen Mirren’s shoulders, and she bears the weight with tremendous grace. Mirren is uncannily Elizabethan, effortlessly slipping into the monarch’s incongruities as easily as she does her boxy A-line dresses. Queen Elizabeth is a waddling contradiction — a figure of unique power, wealth, and influence while simultaneously an inelegant frump — and the lissome Mirren seems surprisingly at home adopting both her domineering attitude and her dowdy orthopedic-shoed galumph. But the most remarkable thing is the empathy she creates for Elizabeth. She may be a bit of a monster, but what else could she be? Thrust into the monarchy as a sheltered girl of 26, following her father’s early death, which the film suggests was a direct result of having had the crown abruptly dropped into his lap upon his brother Edward VIII’s abdication, she gave up being a woman to become an institution.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
The Queen / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | January 17, 2007 | Comments ()