Intimate backstage look at the British crown makes for royal character drama
Directed by Stephen Frears
Cast: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell
British director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, Hero, The Hi-Lo Country, High Fidelity) has developed a taste for his country’s recent history. In 2003, he directed The Deal, a TV movie about Prime Minister Tony Blair’s rise to power. Having found his perfect Tony Blair in actor Michael Sheen (Underworld), Frears has again recruited the actor in a stand-alone companion piece titled The Queen. The film examines the events surrounding the Aug. 31, 1997, death of Princess Diana Spencer, spinning them into a pop culture docudrama about Queen Elizabeth II.
Americans are familiar, obviously, with the surface details of Diana’s death. But few Americans--and probably only a small percentage of Brits--are aware of the power struggle that erupted in the wake of the English Rose’s death.
Rather than exploring the scandalous allegations of conspiracy that grew in the months and years following Diana’s accident (the royal family did it, the paparazzi did it, space aliens did it), The Queen concentrates on the royal family’s conspicuously silent response. Queen Elizabeth II (played with Oscar-level perfection by Helen Mirren) and the rest of her crown-wearing brood are on holiday in the Scottish highlands when the bad news comes down. Not everyone in the family views Diana’s passing as a bad thing. At the time, of course, she was divorced from Prince Charles and no longer a member of the royal family. The Queen’s official response, then, is to keep silent and remain on vacation.
As it turns out, the British people don't much care for that response. (“Sleeping in the streets and pulling out their hair for someone they never knew. And they think we're mad!” barks Prince Philip at one point.) With the royals taking the aloof approach, it quickly falls to newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Sheen, matching Mirren note-for-note) to “convince” the Queen that Diana’s death merited something a little more ... proactive.
Intimate in the extreme, The Queen boils down to a mano-a-mano power struggle between Blair (a modern-day reformer with little taste for royal power plays) and Queen Elizabeth (the very model of old-fashioned English stoicism). Though based on speculation, the film is as rooted in reality as possible.
Insulated by layers of servants and bootlicks, Her Majesty’s response seems both logical and sincere. She firmly believes that her subjects expect stiff-upper-lip resolve in the face of tragedy. Blair, a working-class populist, sees things from a far different perspective. As the week wears on and the questioning headlines grow louder, Blair knows that his Queen has tragically underestimated the popularity of “the People’s Princess.” Millions of weeping mourners are filling the streets, flooding the sidewalks in front of Buckingham Palace with a sea of flowers. Actual news footage from the day reminds us just how much grief people were feeling at the time. Instead of carrying themselves with stiff-upper-lip resolve, ordinary citizens are demanding a royal funeral, they are demanding that the palace flag be flown at half-mast.
In the Queen’s mind, these requests are simply not reasonable. The British flag is never actually flown at Buckingham Palace. Only the Queen’s personal standard is displayed, and it is only raised to indicate when the Queen is in residence. But the British people don’t give a damn about the petty intricacies of tradition. In frighteningly short order, the Queen’s icy response actually threatens to topple the monarchy.
HRH is right, technically. Protocol simply doesn’t allow any palace flag to be flown at half-mast. But in a larger more symbolic sense, she’s dead wrong. This puts Mr. Blair in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand, he’s trying to shepherd England toward democracy. (His outspoken wife would just as soon the monarchy be demolished.) On the other hand, he’s only inherited his position because the Queen has deemed him worthy. (The British Prime Minister is elected by the people, but must be officially granted the position by the monarch.) The script (by Peter Morgan, who penned this year’s other Oscar contender, The Last King of Scotland) portrays Blair with surprising sympathy, the one reasonable man in a room filled with stubborn people.
Mirren, whose portrait of QEII feels both imperious and impartial, will certainly get an Oscar nomination for her work here. The film never asks for grand scenes of emotion or conflict. But with its quiet scenes of backstage confrontation and personal reflection, The Queen delivers classic high drama.
While the film focuses intently on that pivotal one-week period, its repercussions are widespread. More than just an absorbing portrait of the notoriously secretive British royalty, The Queen is a timely appeal for governmental sympathy in an era when so many leaders seem content to fiddle while Rome burns. (Hurricane? What hurricane?) Sometimes, all we ask of our leaders is that they run a simple flag up a flagpole. Occasionally, they listen.