The story depicted in “The Queen” is old news (try 10 years old, to be exact), but screenwriter Peter Morgan and veteran director Stephen Frears (“Dangerous Liaisons”) manage to make a subtle, vibrant and intriguing movie out of a potentially torpid subject.“The Queen” covers the brief but pivotal period after August 31, 1997 when Diana, Princess of Wales and her boyfriend Dodi Al Fayed died in a car wreck.
The United Kingdom becomes engulfed in mourning, but within the Royal family, opinions of the Princess could politely be described as muted. Queen Elizabeth (Dame Helen Mirren, “Calendar Girls”) and her husband Prince Philip (American actor James Cromwell) admire what she’s done as a mother but find her divorce from their son Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) distasteful.
While the Royals keep to their affairs at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, thousands of their subjects leave tons of flowers at the gates of Buckingham Palace. Many are upset to the point of rioting at how the indifferent the Monarchy seems about the death.
The Prince and newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) realize that the situation could permanently mar the way the British view their Sovereigns. Blair’s confidants consider the Queen and her court antiquated, and his wife (Helen McCrory) is vocally anti-Monarchist.
Having spent the last few years courting public opinion, the PM realizes that the stiff upper lip attitude that the Royals winning conveyed in World War II is completely wrong for the current situation.
Watching Blair deftly persuading the Court to take a more acceptable PR stance is surprisingly fascinating. Morgan’s eye for detail is astonishingly sharp, capturing all of the rituals and nuances that both the bureaucrats and the Royal family live by. At times, the film seems like a bizarre linguistic game as both the PM and the Queen attempt to speak the same language.
Giving the film its soul, however, is Mirren’s engaging performance in the title role. Instead of playing an outsider obliviously insulated from the rest of the nation, Mirren’s Elizabeth almost longs to be one of her own subjects (at the beginning of the film she muses about what it must be like to vote), and it’s fascinating to watch her gradually make the adaptations she needs to preserve the honor of the Crown.
Mirren projects the requisite dignity even as Elizabeth faces crowds who like her far less than Diana. The actress also conveys an inner warmth that isn’t immediately apparent. This makes it easier to care if she reconciles with her subjects.
Neither she nor Sheen attempt to impersonate their real-life counterparts. This is a plus because a straight impersonation would have distracted from the story and would have reduced their performances to caricature.Both get able support from the rest of the cast and from Frears’ no-nonsense direction. In the end “The Queen” works magnificently because it reminds us that rulers have human hearts even if they live in a world the rest of us can only imagine.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2006 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Chicago Film Festival For more in the 2006 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2006 Austin Film Festival series, click here.