I’ve never been much of a Royal Watcher, that devoted group of people who follow the affairs of the British royal family like others follow the characters and plot of Lost or The Godfather. While the notion of a monarchy appeals to my sense of order and love of history, I know that in almost all cases the idea looks better on paper than in reality. As an American, I suppose that anti-monarchist sentiment is ingrained in my DNA. But still, there is something fascinating about watching the institution function in our so-called modern times.
The troublesome duality of the British crown is exemplified brilliantly in The Queen, starring Helen Mirren as…the queen. Mirren deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, who at the age of 25 ascended to the throne in 1952. But The Queen is not, as I thought it would be, a biography. It concerns, rather, the tumultuous week following the death of Princess Diana in August 1997.
The essential conflict of the movie is how to properly respond to Diana’s death. For the overwhelming majority of people the answer was simple – a very dramatic and very public display of grieving. But that answer was not so clear for Queen Elizabeth. Diana, after all, was technically no longer a member of the royal family, having divorced Prince Charles a year before her death. So the queen, beholden to centuries of royal tradition and protocol, was moved to offer nothing from her family but dignified silence. Stiff upper lip and all that rot.
On the other side is Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), the newly elected prime minister. In stark contrast to the old ways of the queen, Blair represents the new order of openness and reform (his wife Cherie in particular is an unabashed opponent of the very institution of the monarchy). But in getting to know the queen, he finds himself in conflict with his own prejudices against the crown. He is initially swept up by the emotions of the British public in their mourning for Diana, and is baffled by the unemotional rigidity of the queen’s response. But as he is exposed more and more to the queen and the inner workings of her family, he comes to sympathize with her plight.
The brilliance of The Queen lies not in the story but in the performances. On the surface, Mirren’s portrayal confirms that Elizabeth is every bit the stodgy, cold fish her detractors say she is. But there are a handful of moments that peel away the facade to reveal a woman of depth, substance, feeling, and even humor. But even by the very end we’re left to wonder whether Elizabeth acquiesced to the PM’s demands concerning Diana because she felt obligated to, or because she felt it was the right thing to do.
Equally impressive was Sheen’s turn as Blair (his second time playing the role). In addition to a striking physical resemblance to the soon-to-be-departed prime minister, Sheen brings forth the humanity in a person most people (most Americans, anyway) see only in 20-second TV clips. We get a sense that although Blair at first seems more liberated in his leadership role than the queen, he is actually just as trapped by his own ideology as she is.
Prince Charles (Alex Jennings, wearing no prosthetic ears), himself caught between his own feelings and his responsibilities as the royal heir, comes off much more sympathetically than expected. While he lacks the strength of will that either the queen or the prime minister possesses, he clearly cared about Diana and their two sons. He may not have been in love with her, but he genuinely admired her.
James Cromwell’s performance as Prince Philip provided some moments of comic relief, as the prince was shown to be a rather one-dimensional figure. While Elizabeth’s turmoil was evident, Philip’s was non-existent. He is obviously no fan of Diana, and was adamant in his disdain for any public show of grief over her death. I daresay he comes off as a bit of a buffoon, but that may be unfair.
The Queen may not have made a Royal Watcher out of me, but it did give me a new appreciation for them. It also stands as one of the more engaging and interesting movies I have seen in awhile.
Tech stuff — The DVD of The Queen sounds and looks fine, and the scenes showing the grounds surrounding Balmoral Castle are stunning. As far as extras, there’s not much. A half-hour “making of” special provides some good insight from the cast and crew, but the lack of deleted scenes (one of which is shown in the making of segment) is disheartening.