Stephen Frears’ The Queen, written by Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland) and starring Helen Mirren, is a glittering, compelling, solemnly anxious news comedy about the week in late summer, 1997, when Tony Blair, fresh in office as new-Liberal Prime Minister, "saved" the British royal family, or saved it from itself, when Lady Di died in Paris. Partly the Queen, Prince Philip, and Prince Charles, all in their own ways, loathed Diana for what she had done to them, which the public, conditioned by the mass media to adore her, could not know about. Partly the Queen wanted to shelter the boys, Diana’s sons, from the noise of publicity, which would only aggravate their grief. Partly, and perhaps most of all, she was being the way she was raised, keeping things to herself, maintaining the immemorial English stiff upper lip. But also as Peter French has said about this film, the royal family "are shown to be morally and socially blinkered." Tony Blair reluctantly taught the Queen to see their absence of public response to the death, her insistence at first that it was a "private, family matter," was a disastrous policy that had to be reversed.
Diana had skillfully manipulated the media to form an image of herself combining Demi Moore and Mother Teresa. And she was still associated with the royal family, and appeared as wronged by them. You don’t turn your back on that. You eat humble pie and play catch-up. But a monarch isn’t tutored in such strategies. No flag flew at half mast over Buckingham Palace, because that flagpole was used only for the royal flag, to show if anyone was home, and they were all at Balmoral, being private in their grief, avoiding publicity, and protecting the boys.
The Queen as seen here and imagined with enthusiasm by Morgan is not as witty as Alan Bennett’s Queen, in her last onscreen recreation, in A Question of Attribution (directed by John Schlesinger, 1992), nor does the estimable Ms. Mirren (who’s nonetheless very fine) have the buoyancy of Prunella Scales in Schlesinger’s film. But she is witheringly cold toward Tony Blair, all foolish smiles on his first official visit to the Palace. (Blair’s played by Michael Sheen, who’s experienced at this game.) As Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian, "Mirren's Queen meets him with the unreadable smile of a chess grandmaster, facing a nervous tyro. She begins by reminding him that she has worked with 10 prime ministers, beginning with Winston Churchill, 'sitting where you are now'. As put-downs go, that's like pulling a lever and watching a chandelier fall on your opponent's head." And, of course, fun for us.
Fully recognizing the crucial importance of the British monarchy, this film is tartly reserved about both sides of the game. The royal family don’t like "call me Tony." And Blair’s wife Cherie is a bit ungainly in her blatantly anti-monarchy attitudes. But when Blair sees how Elizabeth’s coldness and invisibility is angering the fans of Lady Di – the media queen, the "People’s Princess" -- alienating her own subjects en masse, he steps in and persuades them to leave Balmoral and look at the thousands of flowers for Di piled in front of the Palance with their humiliating notes; then deliver a "tribute" to Di on TV. The formal grandeur of the film inherent in its subject matter – the Prime Minister and the royal family – is offset by its ironies and by the intimacy of the tennis match that develops in communications back and forth by telephone.
This movie is ultimately kind to Blair and to the Queen. It makes us feel sorry for Elizabeth, whom Blair comes to defend (against some of his cockier associates, not to mention his wife) with ardor. In Peter Morgan’s second imagined interview with Blair the Queen coolly observes that he confuses "humility" with "humiliation" (he hasn’t seen the nasty notes on the bunches of flowers for Diana); and she sees his kindness as merely due to seeing that what has happened to her could happen to him as quickly. As for Blair, the Brits may have little use for him now, but the filmmakers acted out of the belief that this week when he averted disaster on behalf of the monarchy was his "finest hour."
Frears has had a varied career, with highpoints second to few, concentrated in the decade of the Eighties after he came off doing a lot of television. These, his own finest hours, include the brilliant My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, and The Grifters. For a while there it looked like he could do anything, then more as if he would; but he’s admirably willing to try new, as well as dirty, pretty, things, The Queen is dignified, but contemporary. It’s bustling and grand. Loud music and vivid performances help. Mirren’s Elizabeth is more of the Queen and less of the Queen than Prunella Scales’ briefer performance. Bennett’s Queen was very clever. Morgan’s is sad and noble. The Queen shows where the Brits are now, and the effect of Lady Di. QEII, like QEI and Victoria before her, has had an extraordinarily long and successful reign, half a century (obviously Mirren is younger than the actual Queen). But with these events, with this crucial week, the days of her generation essentially ended.
There’s a symbolic fourteen-point stag at Balmoral the men are interested in. James Cromwell’s brusque, lordly Prince Philip will do nothing but take the boys hunting, to get them outside. In the end a corporate banker kills the stag on a neighbor’s property, and only Elizabeth sees it, when she’s stranded in a jeep she’s driven into the mud, and crying.
For all its ceremony and noise, loneliness and wit, mostly The Queen simply tells a story, the new story of English royalty at the end of the twentieth century. It was a story worth telling, and it’s told well. A fitting opening night event for the New York Film Festival, in combines ceremonial elegance, good writing, and a superb lead performance by Helen Mirren.
©2006 Chris Knipp