I have a tendency to like Stephen Frears’ work — not to mention unabashedly loving three of his films (anyone who can name the three has been reading this column too closely). Helen Mirren is like a small goddess to me. And I confess to being a staunch Anglophile as well — though this is grounded in British music, film, literature and the countryside more than the any inherent fascination with the aristocracy. (OK, so I sent Queen Elizabeth a get-well card when she had the chicken pox, but I was in high school at the time and living on a steady diet of Beatles, The Avengers and The Prisoner.) However, all that to one side, I just couldn’t get very enthused over the subject matter of The Queen. After having seen it, I’m still not. But the film is nonetheless a compelling little gem, and Helen Mirren is simply dazzling as Elizabeth II.
The story is a fictionalized imagining of what really went on behind the scenes during the days following the death of Princess Diana — and the reasons behind the royal family’s refusal to make any public comment for so long. It’s a concept that could very easily have toppled over into tabloidesque exploitation, and it’s a credit to Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland) that it never does. Instead, what they offer is an often tartly comic, yet ultimately moving, look at the story from two points of view — that of Elizabeth and newly elected prime minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen, Underworld: Evolution).
As the representative of the Labour Party (replacing arch-conservative Margaret Thatcher), Blair is a progressive and innately at odds with the conservative attitudes of the royal family — or at least what he believes those attitudes to be. Elizabeth is equally skeptical of him, receiving him coolly after his election, quietly reminding him that she’s lived through 10 prime ministers as queen, and yet unable to completely repress her private amusement at his naive gaucherie.
It’s a few months after their initial meeting that the two find themselves at loggerheads over how to handle the public response to the death of Diana. From the queen’s point of view, Diana was no longer a member of the royal family, since she was divorced from Prince Charles (Alex Jennings, Babel). Therefore, Elizabeth declines to make a public statement and would prefer to see the princess buried quietly and privately. (The film strongly suggests that the royal family viewed Diana as a detriment and an unashamed publicity hound, all the while realizing that the private Diana they knew and the one the public thought they knew had little in common.)
What the queen hadn’t reckoned on was the mood of the people and their strong feelings for the late princess. Blair understands this mood and is fearful that Elizabeth’s attitude could undermine the monarchy — possibly to the point of toppling it — and finds himself essentially fighting the queen to save her from herself and her adherence to protocol. This could have been dry as dust, but the film manages to make it entertaining, even to the point of imbuing it with a sense of urgency.
There are moments of high comedy throughout — more than a few contributed by the outspoken queen mother (Sylvia Syms, What a Girl Wants), especially when she learns the government intends on using her funeral plans, quickly adapted for Diana — but the tone is always respectful (without being reverential). The shrewdest aspect of the film is its use of the two households — the royal family’s grand one at Balmoral and the Blairs’ decidedly downscale one — to create a microcosm of the two worlds that are colliding.
Amazingly, nearly all of it works as human drama. Frears, Morgan and Mirren may not know what Elizabeth is really like, but they give a good impression of what she must be like based on what they do know. The deeply human approach extends to nearly every character in the film — Prince Philip (James Cromwell, The Longest Yard) is the weakest of the lot — making it accessible to a broad audience. In turn this makes The Queen one of the better pictures of the year. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke