There are certain events in your life that, if you’re old enough to formulate memories at all, will forever leave an imprint on you. Decades later, you will be able to recall exactly where you were when you heard the news and the most miniscule details of your life for at least a short while following those events. For my generation, 9/11 is an obvious contender. My dad has said he can remember exactly where he was John Lennon died as well as where he was when the Challenger exploded. For our grandparents, it’s the Kennedy assassination or Pearl Harbor. While 9/11 is my big external life event, the earliest that I can remember is the death of Diana, Princess of Wales one August 31st of 1997. I was only eight years old at the time (and American), but the massive public mourning made an extreme impact and I can’t remember a single death since that’s received that sort of attention.
I can remember my mother crying when she found out that Diana had died. A woman that she had never met, who lived in another nation, and had experienced a life of privilege that we (in rural WV) could never imagine. Yet, like many young American girls at the time, my mother was enthralled by the “fairy book” wedding between Diana and Prince Charles in 1981. As the Princess of Wales, Diana only solidified her legacy and love from the people with her various charitable activities as well as her obvious affection for the crown princes. So, when a combination of paparazzi as well as an intoxicated chauffeur resulted in her premature death at the tender age of 36, it was an international tragedy. What few get to see is what it was like for the royal family itself (which Diana was officially no longer a part of in 1997), and that seldom seen side of history is the subject of Stephen Frear’s fascinating biopic, The Queen.
Princess Di’s death coincided with another major event in British history. After 18 years of Tory control of the British government (see The Iron Lady for more on that), the Labour party, headed by Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), took control over the British parliament. Decidedly too modern for Queen Elizabeth II’s (Helen Mirren) tastes, Labour was another source of irritation in addition to the endless scandals and headlines involving the ex-wife of her son, Prince Charles. When Princess Diana passes away, the royal family (except for Charles) initially sees no reason to give Diana the royal treatment for her funeral and memorial because she was no longer a member of the royal family. However, this stubbornness generates unprecedented resentment against the royal family, and with pressure from Prime Minister Blair and the public, she is forced to bend to give Diana the service the public demands.
If that seems like an oddly specific view into the life of one of the most famous women in the world, watching the film will reveal The Queen to be a subtle and layered look into a world that most Americans can’t begin to comprehend. Although the film begins with the Queen bemoaning her inability to vote and a painter reminding her it’s still her government, it becomes quickly apparent throughout the film that almost nothing about England is the Queen’s beside her 40,000 acre estate in Scotland as well as Buckingham Palace. Sticklers to rules that go back hundreds of years, The Queen explores both the elegance of the royal family as well as their pride, their obstinance, and their ultimate humanity. Although the film doesn’t always place Queen Elizabeth II in the most flattering light (being more affected by the death of a 14 point stag than her ex daughter-in-law), you leave the film knowing that she’s a human being like the rest of us.
As always, Helen Mirren is a marvel. Although I would argue that The Last Station was her best role, her Academy Award for The Queen was well deserved. Her performance was a master-class in restraint and subtlety. Even the way the film shot her showed a sort of dignified elegance that is part and parcel with her character. When the Queen goes off on her own on the Balmoral estate in Scotland, she finally has an emotional response to the death of Princess Diana (though it may be as much about the negative reaction to her lack of a response to Di’s death as any sadness about Di’s passing). And with small movements of the body, Mirren is able to communicate leagues of information. That she is able to do this while being shot almost entirely from behind is the true marvel, and the film is full of quiet moments like that (such as when a child gives the Queen flowers at Buckingham Palace) that achieve more than any loud, in-your-face scene could hope to accomplish.
Michael Sheen was nearly as good. In fact, he was so convincing as Tony Blair that he would ultimately play the beleaguered Labour leader two more times. Tony Blair was a modern man (with an anti-Monarchist wife) thrust into an archaic world of being constitutionally obliged (insofar as England has anything that you could call a constitution which is up for serious debate) to let the Queen ask him to form a Parliament even though he was democratically elected by the people. He has to toe the line of giving the people what they want in regards to a remembrance for Princess Di without feeling as if he’s stepping on the toes of the royal family, for whom he gains a grudging respect (particularly Queen Elizabeth II). Michael Sheen encapsulates the charm and charisma which got Blair elected in the first place as well as the sense of him being a man torn apart by a million different demands.
The film could be a little plodding at times, and if you’re an America, it may be difficult to grasp what the big deal about the monarchy is in the first place. I’ve always said that if I were born into the monarchy as the heir apparent, I would disband it upon ascending to the throne and sell all of the properties and give the proceeds to charity. Because the actions of the royal family seem so archaic and so out of touch with the modern world, it can be difficult to sympathize with certain characters (particularly Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband), but Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan never fail to humanize these characters without letting the audience forget they come from a different world. For all anglophiles, The Queen is required viewing especially for those who appreciate Helen Mirren’s talents as one of the finest actresses of her age.
Final Score: B+