Director Stephen Frears, who has made excellent character studies about the British class system (“Dirty Pretty Things”) and masterful thrillers about social outcasts (“The Grifters”), brings to the screen a story that is both of those things with “The Queen.” It is a fascinating film that chronicles what might have gone on behind-the-scenes at Buckingham Palace in the wake of one the most famous tragedies of the 20th century.
In August 1997, Diana, former Princess of Wales, was killed in a car accident during a period when the royal family disliked her the most. “The Queen” depicts a scene shortly after the crash when Queen Elizabeth II, played flawlessly by Helen Mirren, is told there is news about Diana. “What has she done this time?” is her annoyed response.
When newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair, played by Michael Sheen in another of the film’s standout performances, calls her to offer his condolences, the queen tells him the royal family is going to deal with Diana’s death privately. Blair correctly predicts heavy opposition to that idea and warns her against it, but Elizabeth refuses to change her protocol and public opinion turns out of her favor almost immediately.
It is rare these days that a film comes along and hits every right note in terms of its performances, directing and writing. “The Queen” does just that. Mirren portrays Elizabeth as a proud woman, desperate to preserve her dignity and reluctant to stray away from the traditions long held by the royal family. She channels the queen’s manner, her tone, her walk, her wave, her look — every detail of the queen’s personality and appearance. Mirren’s Golden Globe-winning acting is so dynamic that she makes the audience forget they are even watching a performance.
Although Mirren is the center of the film, the rest of the cast shines as well. Not only was Sheen brilliant as Tony Blair, but the performances by James Cromwell as Prince Philip, Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair and Sylvia Syms as the queen mother all deserve honorable mention as well. Syms in particular fills her role with a lot of wit and character.
“The Queen” is part documentary, part drama and is actually bitingly funny as well. Writer Peter Morgan finds humor in class distinctions and the way Diana’s funeral evolved from a private affair into a huge media event, much to the royal family’s dismay. “Elton John wishes to sing at the funeral. Should be a first for Westminster Abbey,” Prince Philip quips. Morgan gives the queen a surprisingly human touch. It would have been very easy to take cheap shots at her expense, but instead, he works to develop her as a real person.
The queen struggles to understand why the faces of her own people are filled with contempt over her public silence in the week before the funeral. She is buried in tradition and fails to see certain things like why she should lower her flag at Buckingham Palace to half-mast. Her view is that it is not a national flag, and while Diana may have been the “People’s Princess” at the time of her death, she was no longer officially the princess. The people of England, in turn, fail to understand their queen’s actions and criticize her every move. They want her to console them, and she wants to ease the grief of her two grandsons “who have just lost their mother.”
Prime Minister Blair is shown as one of the few supporters of the royal family during those tumultuous days. He constantly begs Elizabeth to reconsider her seemingly cold way of dealing with the tragedy for fear that the monarchy could be severely harmed. Blair holds great respect for the throne and has great empathy for the queen, defending her when others mock her. He is aware of his own public favor and the bad publicity mounting up against the royal family, leading him to comment: “Will someone please save these people from themselves!” The heart of the movie is, in fact, this interesting relationship between the prime minister and the queen. He is new to power after victory in a recent landslide election. She is old and inherited her title. Despite these differences, there is much that they learn from one another in order to move forward.
Frears’ direction anchors “The Queen.” He goes back and forth from the scenes he shot and actual footage taken from television at that time. This method creates a stark contrast between what the royal family went through during this period and the struggles of the public. Frears displays the scenes simply and pays close attention to the smaller moments. The film ends as subtly as it begins, and the audience is left in a daze, as if they had experienced some sort of frenzied week that got a little too out of hand.
Grade: 4 out of 5