Directed by Stephen Frears
Screenplay by Peter Morgan
Starring Helen Mirren, with Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam, Sylvia Syms, Helen McCrory, Mark Bazeley
Rated PG-13; 97 minutes
If The Queen only had Helen Mirren’s precise, affecting and deeply felt performance as Elizabeth II, it would still be a memorable film. But director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan have taken care to surround Mirren with everything needed to create a really marvelous film as well. The Queen is both dryly funny and touching, creating if not quite sympathy then at least a glimmer of understanding of a family that by its very nature and its circumstances is reduced to caricature or insulated into iconography. The Queen’s revelation is that the bubble of wealth and fame that keeps Elizabeth and the rest of the Windsors visible yet apart from the rest of us also keeps them far apart from each other — even, or especially, at the moments when they need each other the most.
The Queen is also one of the best dissections of power — personal, political and by virtue of celebrity — that I’ve seen in a long time. Frears is alive to every nuance of word and gesture that puts people in their places, in interactions both ritualistic and “unscripted.” In this film you notice things like who calls who, who dials directly or has their assistant do it, who gets to see important papers first — all markers of power and ways to shape the conversation.
Even in formalized circumstances, with people playing assigned “parts,” Frears lays bare the mechanics of power. This is nowhere more evident in two scenes between Mirren and Michael Sheen, playing Tony Blair, that bookend the film, which mostly focuses on the deliriously strange week following the 1997 death of Princess Diana.
The first scene is Blair’s first one-on-one visit to Buckingham Palace as the country’s newly elected Prime Minister, or as Mirren’s Elizabeth reminds someone, Prime Minister-to-Be. As the country’s sovereign and the titular head of government, she must formally ask Blair to form a government in her name before he can actually wield power. The U.S. equivalent would be George W. Bush needing to ask the Supreme Court to anoint him president after the votes are counted…
But back to the Mother Country. Officially Elizabeth is powerless (as the sovereign she is not even allowed to vote) but there’s no question in this scene who has the home court advantage. No voices are raised, no arms are twisted, but Blair, and the audience, get a taste of what it’s like to be condescended to by someone who really is superior, in more ways than one. (She reminds Blair that he is “her” tenth prime minister, and that her first was Winston Churchill.) No wonder Cherie Blair (Helen McCrory) dislikes the queen, both personally and as a symbol of what she considers an outmoded England. Cherie likes to be the one to put Tony in his place and resents this mother figure’s ability to do so so easily.
But another kind of power, generated by the celebrity that Princess Diana used, abused and suffered from during her lifetime, chips away at Elizabeth when Diana dies in a horrific accident in Paris (paparazzi were chasing the speeding limo she was sharing with her boyfriend of the moment, Dodi Fayed, who also died in the crash). Though Diana and Prince Charles had officially divorced a year prior, and had been estranged for far longer, Diana’s role as mother to the Heir and the Spare still ties her to the Windsors, however much they want to write her off as an aberration that they hoped would self-destruct or just fade away.
But her death, like Marilyn’s and James Dean’s, gives what was fascinating yet silly in life a tragic grandeur mixed with both horror and sex. Naturally, the public eats it up, and the unprecedented — and very un-British — outpouring of grief actually shakes the monarchy. Frears and Morgan keep cutting from the Windsors, cocooned at Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands, to television shots of the flowers that ordinary people keep leaving at the gates of empty Buckingham Palace. What starts as a small mound eventually grows into a sea of flowers, cards and candles, a visual rebuke to a royal family that seems not to care that the “People’s Princess” has perished.
The film doesn’t use an actress to play Diana (there aren’t any flashbacks), but Frears and Morgan use well-chosen TV clips — including the interview where she reveals that there were three in her marriage (Diana, Charles, and his actual girlfriend, Camilla Parker-Bowles). Diana as person and as media creation are both thorns in Elizabeth’s side.
Tony Blair, with his politician’s instincts, realizes far more quickly than the royals that the country’s mood has changed, and does everything in his power to coax, cajole and finally pressure Elizabeth to unbend and show remorse, or at least grief, over Diana’s death. It’s a complicated dance — Blair can’t make the queen do anything she really doesn’t want to — and Elizabeth believes, rightly or wrongly, that grief is a private affair. She’s also so estranged from her own emotions that she can’t admit how much she hated Diana, and hates the position her death has put her in. But the British people want their Mommy to say everything is going to be all right, and that she’s sorry she was mean to her ex-daughter-in-law.
Of course, this Mommy can’t even comfort her actual child. If there’s any pure victim in The Queen it’s Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), who captures the real prince’s worried squint and adds to it what looks like a severe case of constipation. But it’s actually a touching scene when he grabs a few minutes with his mother, talking about what a wonderful, “natural,” “physical” mother Diana was to their sons William and Harry. The implication, of course, is that Elizabeth and Philip (a fantastic turn by James Cromwell) were, and are, cold and unfeeling. Frears is careful never to show either parent touching Charles or either grandchild — not a hug or even a pat. Brrrrrr!
Eventually, people power “wins,” and Elizabeth delivers a live TV address that mitigates the anti-monarchy sentiment Diana’s grief-a-thon has stirred up. But Elizabeth gets the last word in the final scene with Blair, two months after Diana’s funeral. He can’t help but feel a little cocky that his political instincts helped save Elizabeth and the monarchy, yet she again puts him in his place, warning him that his current popularity could disappear more quickly than it grew — as indeed it has in the intervening decade.
Mirren’s triumph is that her Elizabeth is actually not an emotionless monster but a creature of duty caught in a changing, Oprah-fied world where people now expect her to “share” her feelings. She’s also lonely, as only a smart, perceptive and powerful person who is surrounded by twits like Philip can be. Mirren has always been great at negotiating power relationships, as she does in her Emmy-winning role of Jane Tennison on TV’s “Prime Suspect.”
As mentioned, Cromwell does an excellent job as useless yet ubiquitous Prince Philip. Roger Allam as Robin Janvrin, a kind of Chief of Staff for Elizabeth, also does fine work, as does Mark Bazeley as Blair’s speechwriter, who comes up with the phrase “the People’s Princess” and who takes a little too much glee in the royals’ blunders and tone-deafness. But the laurels belong to Frears, Morgan and especially Mirren. All hail The Queen.