A film review by Craig J. Koban


2006, PG-13, 97 mins.

Elizabeth II: Helen Mirren / Tony Blair: Michael Sheen / Prince Philip: James Cromwell / Queen Mother: Sylvia Syms / Trevor Rees-Jones: Paul Barrett / Cherie Blair: Helen McCrory

Directed by Stephen Frears / Written by Peter Morgan

Helen Mirren’s performance as Queen Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears’ THE QUEEN is a bravura showcase of subdued and restrained focus.  She plays the famous monarch at the time when she was critically berated in the court of public opinion during one the most heartbreaking moments of recent British history.  What Mirren is able to do with such uncanny conviction is reveal a woman that has duplicitous and - at times - diametrically opposed loyalties.  It's one of the best and most layered portrayals of royal figure that I have ever seen.

On one hand, Elizabeth is fiercely dedicated to the centuries-old customers and manners of the monarchy.  To her, a public life is not one to be put under a microscope.  On the same token, she also sees herself as a servant of her people, and her opinion is very difficult to sway even in the midst of overwhelming evidence that “her people” think that she is disastrously out of touch with their sensibilities.  As the country yearns for more modernistic approaches to propel them towards the future, the Queen still stands stoically by her principles and legacy, even when one in four in her country sees the monarchy as irrelevant. 

Why has her nation turned on her?  Perhaps it has a little something to do with the 1997 election of Great Britain’s new Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who won in a landslide victory.  His goals were for radical change and to revolutionize how the country ran itself.  This was a bold and undeniably significant event in the recent history of the UK, a time during which the nation was just getting out of the grip of Thatcher and into the hands of a fresh and invigorating new leader that yearned for legitimate change in an age of indecision.  Blair spoke the words that the people wanted to hear, which lead to his strong popularity at the time.  Clearly, his ideology and youthful spunk and determination would bring him at odds with Elizabeth.

Disaster then struck when Diana, The Princess of Wales, was killed in a horrific car accident on August 31, 1997.  She was with her then lover, Dobi-Al Fayed and their intoxicated driver, Henri Paul, drove them into the Pont de l’Alma road tunnel where the car crashed into a barricade while trying to evade the paparazzi.  The effect of the her terrible demise could arguably be an event that has been permanently etched in the memories of those that loved and looked up to her, much in the same manner that J.F.K.'s death did.  I certainly recall the endless TV coverage and the enormous outpouring of utter sadness and shock that the people of the world displayed.  By the time of her engagement to the Prince of Wales in 1981 to her death 16 years later, Diana was one of the most famous women in the world.  She was an iconic presence noted for her style, grace, and philanthropic endeavors around the world.  Despite the fact that her public marriage to Charles ended in divorce which also divorced her from the monarchy, the public still saw her as a Princess.

Interestingly, THE QUEEN focuses on Diana’s death only as a crutch for the overall relationship between Tony Blair and Elizabeth II and their own respective one with the public.  When Diana’s death was announced, Blair rightfully stepped forward and provided his sympathies to the nation.  Now, Diana was no longer legally a princess, but Blair had the foresight to see that the public still saw her as royalty.  He came out in a memorable public speech and announced that Diana was “the people’s princess.”  The people of Great Britain appreciated Blair’s actions. 

What they didn’t appreciate was the fact the Elizabeth and the monarchy as a whole kept closed lipped about the whole event.  When the public demanded equal words of solace from the Queen as they got from Blair, they were shocked and outraged by her apparent lack of action.  Stubbornly, Elizabeth stood within the intense cocoon of doctrines and royal heritage that she and her predecessors held so dear.  Her steadfast loyalty to the monarchy first and common sense second – it could be argued – almost toppled the monarchy.

Yet, did the Queen have a point?  Theoretically, she had some legitimate reasons for her actions, or lack there of, after Diana’s death.  Firstly, Diana was officially divorced from the monarchy (“She is a private figure now, not a public one of the monarchy,” she says in the film).  In her mind, if Diana were still a royal presence, then a statement would have be issued.  Alas, she was not, so Elizabeth stood her ground.  She also has legitimacy in not wanting to fly the flag at half-mast at Buckingham Palace as a symbolic gesture.  She says it breaks tradition, and she’s right.  The flag is not the country’s, but her own, and it only is flown while she at the in residence.  Why, then, should she feel forced to break with tradition to appease public scrutiny?

Perhaps because it was simply just the right thing to do.  At least that’s how Blair sees it.  He is a clear-cut and obvious foil to the perpetually ignorant and sternly pro-tradition Queen, who thinks she’s in the right, but is far too foggy about the needs and wants of her people.  If anything, he represents a need for a pragmatist in government, especially in the aftermath of Diana’s death.  He feels the people’s resentment of the monarchy for their refusal to issue a statement.  He is also right in fearing that – in the long run – public resentment could destroy the monarchy.  The Queen simply does not see it this way.  She is used to a tradition and legacy of being loved by her people.  When she discovers that a quarter of her citizens feel she is no longer relevant, it’s a tough pill to swallow.  To her, Blair represents the “new” blood and she slowly begins to realize that – just maybe – she has lost all touch with those that she perceived admired her and her family.

On these levels, and many more, THE QUEEN is endlessly provocative as a character driven masterpiece.  Thankfully, Frears does not use the death of Diana as a catalyst to create a sensationalistic portrayal of the monarchy.  THE QUEEN could have been as odious as a gossip rag.  Fortunately, Frears uses the backdrop of one of the most famous deaths of recent history as a springboard to strongly hone in on the characters of the Queen and Blair.  The film is about tragedy, to be sure, but it’s more about how two people perceive the tragedy and act in its aftermath.  In a way, Frears is most concerned about what truly drives both individuals and the discrete – almost quite and illuminating – manner that he juxtaposes the two is intoxicating and involving.

In Blair, we see a much more personal and down-to-earth figure.  He’s perceptively more middle-class and is not a figure sheltered by an endless supply of servants and customs.  The Queen’s world is completely alien to him and – at first – he is at his wit’s end as to why the monarchy can’t simply come out and speak about Diana (“Will someone please save these people from themselves,” he pitifully screams at one point).  He can’t relate to the Queen’s doctrines and platitudes and has an even more difficult time understanding what he sees as disrespect towards the people by not doing anything.  He pleads with the Queen at time for action.  Blair knows that Elizabeth is not a woman to simply walk away from custom, but he has the perseverance to see that – dammit – fly the flag at half-mast to at least show the people you care and forget about stingy tradition.

The Queen is the complete anti-thesis to Blair as she is cold, detached, and has an almost chilling ambivalence to his constant questioning of her motives.  She is a figure that veils her contempt for Diana, but what she does not realize is that by not speaking about a dead public persona that was associated with the crown could ultimately ruin her.  The film is intrinsically challenging in asking the questions of whether the Queen ended up taking Blair’s advice because (a) she did feel sad about Diana’s death or (b) she could not stand the fact that she was no longer universally adored because of her inactions after Diana’s death.  Perhaps it’s a bit more of the latter, as she succumbs to Blair’s wishes for her to publicly address the nation when she realizes that everything she has lived for is snowballing down towards public disgrace.

Even more enthralling is the arc of Blair in the film, who at first eats up his advisors showing him press clippings of how the public considers him the political force to follow and not the Queen.  He uses his growing popularity to help propel the Queen to speak out on Diana.  The more Blair speaks out on Diana, the more he is hailed as a hero.  The less the Queen does, the more she is chastised as an unsympathetic and immoral figurehead.  However, as the film progresses Blair grows truly concerned about this paradigm shift in the public’s mind.  He does not see eye to eye with the monarchy, but he begins to grow distasteful of how the public is quick to chew up the royals.  He grows to respect the longstanding tradition of the crown.  When the Queen finally addresses the nation, he’s in curious state of awe.  “Now that’s power,” he says as he sees Elizabeth do something that originally went against everything she stood for. 

For Stephen Frears, THE QUEEN is an absolute triumph.  His past credits are eclectic and broad (he made DANGEROUS LIAISONS, THE GRIFTERS, and HIGH FIDELITY) and with THE QUEEN he again showcases his keen focus and resolve for understanding the emotional complexity of its themes and characters.  What I appreciated the most was how democratic he is with the subject matter.  THE QUEEN is not the complete and absolute evisceration of the monarchy as many expect it to be.  The film does attack the Queen’s lack of action in dealing with the death of Diana, but it also pays respect to the Royal family as a body that is an integral part of UK life.  These people may be stubborn beyond belief and their actions may display a wanton disregard for common sense, but their legacy is one of habitual formality that is not easily broken.  The Queen herself is also indicative of this: she is a proud woman with a proud history and – like it or not – she is a commendable persona for at least standing by her convictions.  For her to give her TV address and abide by Blair’s wishes most certainly was difficult for her.

The screenplay is lively, oftentimes brimming with light comedy, and is intelligent and perceptive.  This, of course, gives the actors a chance to shine.  Mirren is simply miraculous in the way she underplays her part for the right effect.  Her performance does not get bogged down into caricature and imitation.  Instead, she inhabits the underlining indecision that paralyzed the woman.  She intuitively displays all of the nuances of Elizabeth’s firm and icy adherence to royal policy as well as her disassociation with the public.  This is a woman that was raised to keep everything inside, and Mirren is spot on in showcasing the difficulty this woman has with capitulating to the public by displaying grief towards Diana’s death.  Perhaps even trickier is the role of Blair, played effortlessly by Michael Sheen, as a man that is both outwardly intimidated by the crown but is also a strong and brave political presence as well.  For him to stand up to the Crown – being one the youngest PM in British history - is noteworthy. 

Stephen Frears’ THE QUEEN is a masterstroke work in how he manages to both be critical and – ultimately – sympathetic to the British monarchy during a time while they were dealing with the death of princess Diana.  It dissolves the enigmatic aura that has permeated the monarchy and instead gives us an inside and intimate look at how they are fiercely loyal to their customs, even when their loyalties are easily held under criticism.  The film is subtle, sly, and sophisticated in how it deals with royal manners and customs alongside the emergence of Tony Blair’s Labour Party as a new direction for British politics.  THE QUEEN invites us into its backstage political personas and places them in a compelling and didactic morality play.  It allows us to relate to how two opposite powers respond to crisis, and with the solid and finely tuned direction of Frears and the hauntingly delicate and understated performance by the brilliant Helen Mirren, THE QUEEN is one of 2006’s most shrewd and gently moving films.

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