Directed by David Frears | Miramax | 103 minutes
Starring Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Sylvia Syms
Monarchy is not an unnatural form of government. Historically more common than republics, monarchy persists even in the successful democracies of Northern Europe, the majority of which maintain their royal families not just for the benefit of curious and nostalgic Americans and their tabloids, but because of the will of people. Stephen Frears has based his most recent film, The Queen, on this paradox. It seems that the more we assert our autonomous selves and equality, the more we long for heroes and great leaders. The film announces this double perspective in the first scene in which we see the queen at her most regal sitting for a portrait while remarking to the Black artist who paints her that she wishes she could vote.
The film takes place during the week following the death of Princess Diana. The cold response of the royal family, who no doubt had their reasons for disapproving of her behaviour, and the public outpouring of love for the dead princess create a double crisis, a personal one for Queen Elizabeth, which becomes political, and a political one for the new Prime Minister Tony Blair, which becomes personal. Helen Mirren, who plays Queen Elizabeth, and Michael Sheen, who plays Blair, so resemble the originals that one almost imagines that if he is not watching a cinema verite documentary, the film makers have somehow engaged the Queen and the PM to play themselves in the movie. Frears’s skilful interweaving of actual documentary footage of Princess Di and the events of that week all add to this impression. And as to democracy, how many countries would allow their current heads of state to be depicted in a docu-drama movie?
Some members of the audience in California where I watched the film confused what they were seeing with a Dame Edna spoof on royal zaniness. Everything struck them funny. And indeed there is a great deal of caricature (or is it accuracy?) in the portraits of Prince Philip, played by the American James Cromwell, who bears the name of England’s most famous regicide, and the Queen Mother, played by the former starlet Sylvia Syms. But moving away from this satiric end of the film’s spectrum, we find Prince Charles, something of a weakling, unable to oppose his parents but buttering up to Blair. Strangely Alex Jennings, who plays this role, unlike the other actors, does not at all resemble the person he represents, but instead reminds one of the Duke of Windsor, who no doubt lubricated the royal family’s slippery slope downwards.
Next there’s Roger Allam playing the loyal servant Robin Janvrin, a sensitive, Remains of the Day kind of fellow who serves as a dedicated link between the real world and the hermetic one of the royals. At the centre reigns the Queen herself, somewhat rigid, but also commanding respect, displaying a sense of humour or irony, and ultimately capturing our sympathy. At one point, when her Range Rover breaks down in the middle of a stream, she sits on the hood, weeping, until distracted by a noble stag who like herself is being hunted down by both “stalking” royals and commoners. She shoos it away from the hunters. At another, after reading all the anti-royal sentiments on the flowers for Princess Di heaped against the gates of Buckingham Palace, she comes upon a little girl holding a bouquet of flowers. “Would you like me to place them,” the Queen asks. “No,” says the little girl, startling Her Majesty, “They’re for you.”
Joining the Queen stands Blair, the “modernising” Prime Minister. To his left we see Cherie, his irreverent wife, and on the other side of her his cynical and opportunist political aides and writers, one of whom coins the phrase for Diana, “the people’s princess. All these perspectives and characters give to the film both complexity and the rich social texture appropriate to its subject. Ultimately, the crisis cements an uneasy alliance between the monarch and the socialist, joined by a mutual desire for national unity. Just as Blair realises the English people want a monarch they can love, so the Queen realises in order to keep any respect for the royal family, she must bow to popular opinion.
The film works on many levels. It presents the inside scoop of what went on following Diana’s death. It provides a riveting personal story, both funny and sad. It gives us an anatomy of both the royal family and media-driven politics. And it dramatises the age-old tension between tradition and change. What the film character Cherie Blair does not realise and what the imagined Queen does, is that if her husband really did “modernise” Great Britain, abolish the monarchy, and leave a purely socialist society as his legacy, that too in time would be looked back upon nostalgically as it became challenged and then scorned by now unforeseen demands for change.
So hats off to Peter Morgan the screenwriter and especially to Stephen Frears, a truly outstanding contemporary director. Frears has excelled in a wide range of subjects, everything from Dirty Pretty Things (2002), about the medical exploitation of third world women to the lighter and good-natured Mrs Henderson Presents (2005). He won great acclaim for My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and The Grifters (1990), the one an interracial gender drama, the other a neo-noir. But to my mind his two greatest successes were Dangerous Liaisons (1988), one of the few movies that visually captured the eighteenth century and made me feel as if I were there, and Hero (1992), which solved the dilemma Frank Capra could not solve in Meet John Doe (1941), namely how to save a fake hero from his intended suicidal leap off the top of a high building.
But if we must remove our hats for Frears, we must bow to Helen Mirren, who gives one of the all-time best performances. Frears has led five actresses to Academy Award nominations: Annette Bening, Glenn Close, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Anjelica Huston. None of them have won. Mirren will undoubtedly prove his sixth. What a hard choice between her and Meryl Streep! But isn’t it great to have a picture that one can wholeheartedly recommend?
William Park is a veteran film reviewer and the author of “Hollywood: An Epic Production”, a highly praised verse history of American cinema. He lives in California.