#30 — The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006)
When Princess Diana died in a car crash in August 1997, the cultural impact was seismic, and, in a way, unprecedented. As opposed to other celebrity deaths that have set people to mourning in the streets, Diana’s untimely passing wasn’t tinged by movies unmade, songs unrecorded, books unwritten. More than with Elvis Presley who preceded her and Michael Jackson who followed her, the people grieving the loss of a global celebrity weren’t responding to their connection to art, but to the person. Misguided or not, they felt they knew her, loved her the way they might a dear friend or family member. They sought out others with similarly intense feelings and looked to those who knew her best to share some of themselves, to express some level of fellowship, to validate the pain in their collective heart. That is the context of The Queen, and the extraordinary capability of screenwriter Peter Morgan and director Stephen Frears to tap into that time, place and feeling while also examining it with an almost ruthless thoroughness is what gives the film its potency.
The conflict of the film is fairly simple. Tony Blair is the new Prime Minister when the news breaks. He has an instinctual sense that the appropriate response is to reach out to the British citizenry, to sympathize and express admiration for the departed “People’s Princess.” It is the politically prudent thing to do, but, more than that, it is also the right thing to do. It is what the populace wants from their leaders. It is what they need to quell their troubles, to heal their fragility, to help them through the confusing process of mourning a woman they knew but never personally encountered. The Royal Family led by Queen Elizabeth II sees things differently. For them it is a private matter. The sense that it is viewed as a tragedy for anyone outside of their immediate circle is completely lost on them, compounded by the fact that Diana is largely estranged from them at the time of the accident. She remains the mother of Prince Harry and Prince William, of course, but is as connected to the Royal Family as could be expected. The broken pacts and wounded relationships of divorce aren’t appreciably different just because the effected parties reside in castles. Perhaps holding even more sway over the Queen’s decisions is the belief that the British people are unerringly resolute, and therefore showy displays of emotion are unnecessary, even inappropriate.
In that aspect, Frears makes his film about something more than a few days in the aftermath of startling news. It is about the very character of his homeland. It is about a shifting culture and those who stand ready to adapt to it, and those who can only stare perplexed at behavior that challenges their very notion of how their own nation works. When Queen Elizabeth testily informs the Prime Minister that she’s quite confident that she knows what the British people need, her conviction is moving, as is, in its own way, her flawed judgment. She’s developed such a strong belief system based upon her subjects’ fortitude and cloistered nature that she’s been blinded to the way the society beyond her gates has shifted. Perhaps they’ve softened, or perhaps they’ve grown more comfortable with their own humanity. Regardless, the distance between the Queen’s views and the people’s collective personality is gradually but forcefully made apparent.
A film about dueling viewpoints and the basic mechanics of the sort of carefully calibrated communication designed to bridge those divisions requires a certain attention to detail on the part of the filmmakers, including the actors. Morgan goes at his script with the same focus that Frears brings to the direction. In both facets, it is steady and assured, eschewing overt ornamentation and gloss in favor of a clearly delivery of the available information. It’s not especially accurate to say that the film doesn’t take sides, since there’s a clear argument embedded in the drama that Queen Elizabeth II is out of touch with her nation’s needs, but the film is fair-minded enough to let the royal family make reasonable points. As played by James Cronwell, The Duke of Edinburgh may be particularly crusty when he gripes about the throngs of people who gush sadness in the streets, but he’s certainly not wrong with his irritated complaint that these masses didn’t even know the woman they wail for.
Helen Mirren justifiably received an Oscar and an accompanying avalanche of acclaim for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, but equal praise should be directed towards Michael Sheen for his turn as Tony Blair. Mirren offers shades of the vulnerability that comes with the queen’s confusion over the negative pubic response to her actions (or lack thereof), fully intertwining it with the sustained regal bearing that comes from a lifetime lived with a different brand of self-assurance. Sheen arguably has the trickier journey to cover. He needs to take Blair from a modernist’s disdain of the antiquated trappings of loyalty that’s still cut with a commoner’s instinctual humility in its presence through pure exasperation at the family’s seemingly ineptitude finally arriving at a sharp admiration. And he needs to make it all seem fully natural and understandable, a task he handily fulfills. In many ways, his trek matches that of The Queen itself. It catches a moment in cultural time for a proud nation still shadowed by its memories of lost empire, and clearly shows how the ground is shifting below the bejeweled feet of those who carried its banner most proudly.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)