Director : Stephen Frears
Screenplay : Peter Morgan
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Helen Mirren (HM Queen Elizabeth II), Michael Sheen (Tony Blair), James Cromwell (Prince Philip), Sylvia Syms (HM The Queen Mother), Alex Jennings (Prince Charles), Helen McCrory (Cherie Blair), Roger Allam (Robin Janvrin), Tim McMullan (Stephen Lamport), Douglas Reith (Lord Airlie), Robin Soans (Equerry)
As a fictionalized peak behind the walls of Buckingham Palace during the seven days following the unexpected death of Princess Diana in 1997, The Queen offers an intriguing glimpse at a key evolutionary moment in the ancient institution of the British monarchy. The film’s central theme is the resilience of tradition in the face of change--whether a rigid adherence to “the way it’s always been” should adapt or crumble. Thus, the incorporated news footage of Diana’s mourners leaving thousands upon thousands of flower bouquets at the gates of the palace begin to look less and less like an outpouring of grief than a rising assault on the Royal Family’s refusal to address the British people’s emotional needs.
As the title implies, the film’s central character is Queen Elizabeth II, played magnificently by Helen Mirren. Elizabeth bears the film’s central conflict--the tear between stasis and change--and Mirren embodies it with the kind of emotional depth that barely peaks to the surface, but is all the more powerful for its subtlety. She is a woman who began her reign when Winston Churchill was Prime Minister, so to say that she has seen a lot would be an understatement. Thus, we can understand why she is appalled that people would expect her to make a public pronouncement of grief about Diana, with whom she had quarreled incessantly and who was no longer a member of the family itself, having divorced Prince Charles a year earlier. At the same time, her slavish adherence to tradition and formality and her refusal to see that the times they were a’changin’ threatens to expose her as a relic, a Queen who proclaims to know her people better than anyone, yet may not know them at all.
Elizabeth is caught between two opposing schools of thought on how the Royal Family should respond to Diana’s untimely death. Her husband, Prince Philip (James Cromwell), is even more recalcitrant than she is, grumbling loudly and often thoughtlessly that Diana is more trouble dead than alive and comparing the grieving masses huddled outside the palace gates to “Zulus.” On the other side is Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who, having been recently elected on his Labour Party’s modernization platform, has ample reason to encourage the Queen to address the situation publicly.
If there is a hero in the film, it is Blair, who is portrayed as the rare politician who not only handles a difficult situation with grace and eloquence, but doesn’t sell his soul to do so. Calling Diana the “People’s Princess” was the best thing he could have done for his popular standing and the worst thing he could do for his relationship with the Royals; yet, when others in his party dismiss the monarchy as an outdated institution, he reacts in their defense with anger and intensity. The tradition must survive, but in a form that better fits the encroaching 21st century.
Director Stephen Frears (Mrs. Henderson Presents), working from a script by Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland), keeps The Queen consistently engaging and at times moving, although he never seems to quite break it out of the limited confines of the docudrama, a problem that is always compounded in films that tackle recent issues and must awkwardly portray heavily mediated public figures with actors. Despite the big themes (one of which is embodied metaphorically in a large stag in a way that is both poignant and somewhat silly), The Queen feels somewhat small, as if it would have played better on the small screen (perhaps it is because Frears began working in television in the 1970s and has periodically returned to direct made-for-TV movies). Mirren’s performance is a towering achievement, though, a moving portrayal of woman forced to grow just when she thinks she has it all figured out, and it goes a long way toward elevating The Queen above any of its limitations.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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