The Queen is the story of the near-eternal struggle between tradition and modernity. The bare plot outline of Stephen Frears‘s thoughtful portrait of Great Britain in the throes of that struggle probably does not excite the casual moviegoer, but this quietly engrossing drama is anything but dull or sedate.
And despite the singular title, this is almost as much the story of the then-newly-elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) who, as a recently-elected politician, is somewhat better attuned to the mood of the British people than a bunch of aristocrats who haven’t really experienced a change of any sort since the last time Winston Churchill was in power.
After efficiently establishing that the royal family is somewhat dubious of the new, reform-minded resident of 10 Downing Street, the film moves on to “that week” when Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, was killed in a car accident in Paris. Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren), her husband Prince Phillip (James Cromwell) and the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) are caught unprepared by the outpouring of public grief over the death of a woman they saw as an embarrassment and, more importantly, no longer a royal. They’re determined to ride out the storm at Balmoral Castle in Scotland until the public comes around to their view of Diana.
Prime Minister Blair, however, seems to intuitively grasp that the people’s affection for Diana overrode any of her public foibles and there needed to be some form of acknowledgement from the family for the woman who gave birth to a future king. His initial gestures, dubbing Diana as “the People’s Princess,” earn him a great deal of public praise as the nation’s “mourner-in-chief.”
As public hostility escalates toward the lack of reaction from Buckingham Palace, Blair tries to persuade the Queen to make some sort of public gesture. Initially, he is rebuffed by a royal family determined to uphold centuries-old tradition in face of “unseemly” public passions. About the only voice of dissension within Balmoral comes from Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), who still feels some affection for the mother of his children and probably doesn’t want to be the most hated King of Great Britain even before ascending the throne. The Prince of Wales makes a few surreptitious entreaties to Blair and others to help nudge the family in what he sees as the right direction, while not actually daring to take a public stand himself.
On his own side, Blair has to contend with a wife and staff who are often openly contemptuous of the royal family as a museum relic with no relevance to modern Britain. He walks a tight rope between his own modernism and the public’s affection for the traditions that the royals still represent.
As I indicated earlier, this film really works as a two-hand piece between Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen. As the monarch, Mirren gives a beautifully nuanced performance that finds humanity behind an almost steel-clad emotional reserve. Michael Sheen is her equal as the young politician who is initially ill at ease with the reins of power. His early, equivocating pleas to the royals are rejected and he doesn’t get their attention or earn their respect until, convinced that the situation could damage the monarchy, he assumes the more authoritative tone of a national leader acting in what he sees as the best interest of the country.
The two stars are backed up by some strong performances, especially Sylvia Syms as the tartly plainspoken Queen Mother. James Cromwell manages to find some humanity in the character who functions primarily as the voice of entrenched royal tradition. As Cherie Blair, Helen McCrory seems to have a lot of fun with her character’s amusement over her husband’s paradoxical affection for the royals, at one point referring to the Queen as “your girlfriend.”
The story is told economically, coming in at less than two hours, but never feels rushed. Screenwriter Peter Morgan and director Frears never linger any longer than necessary on a dramatic beat, but leaves use with the impression that we have been party to an intimate look behind the scenes of one of their private of public figures.
While the film does portray the correctly the public outrage over the royal family’s lack of response to Diana’s death, it doesn’t deal directly with the issue of whether the public outpouring of grief might have been the least bit excessive or inappropriate. I would have loved to have heard some mention of the fact that Mother Teresa died the day before Diana’s very public funeral, and with far less public chest-beating.
Princess Diana’s death has always had a bitterly ironic tinge. Whatever you thought of her, the “most photographed woman in the world” was essentially chased to her death because Europe’s insatiable paparazzi had to have just one more picture of her, as if it to let one moment of her life pass without record was a crime against our culture of celebrity.