The Queen (UK: 2006)
Starring Helen Mirren
written by Peter Morgan
directed by Stephen Frears
"What the Hell am I doing here?" was my first thought, trying not to lose faith in humankind as I watched again that endlessly accumulating pile of bouquets stack up outside Buckingham Palace.
Why would I want to revisit the media orgy of Diana Spencer's death, an event that only affected me insofar as it was there to annoy me every time I turned on the TV for the rest of that year? Is the years of watching Prime Suspect (actor Helen Mirren's starting point) really a good reason to subject myself to another round of celebration of the legacy of the "People's Princess"? And could I really tolerate an up-close-and-personal look at the lives of Tony and Cherie Blair?
The plot surrounds the events following Diana's death in 1997, three months after the landslide election that first brought Tony Blair into office.
The incoming Blair of 97 was a far cry from the wincing, grey-at-the-edges veteran of two mandates and three wars. Now that Blair is an international poster-boy for domestic privatization, a law-and-order agenda and quagmire in Iraq, it's hard to remember the jubilation that greeted his election and the end of 18 years of Tory rule. This was before it was revealed that Blair's idea of change meant doing exactly the same.
Michael Sheen captures the energetic Blair in all his contradictions: his self-confidence as a "modern" statesman, the faux-sincerity of his sentimental spinstering, his school-boy reverence for traditional authority figures.
It's so well-done it's painful.
Blair's talk of change and modernization apparently had the Royal family on edge about their future.
They needn't have been so concerned, however, as Blair's cabinet would soon find out.
As Diana was formally no longer a Royal when she died, Elizabeth and company retreated to
Balmoral Castle, their summer residence in the Scottish highlands, to escape the media frenzy. The media's response was to lambaste the family for being uncaring and old-fashioned. Some even began to question the continued existence of the monarchy. But before anyone could get around to suggesting the French solution, Blair got on the phone to the Queen to convince her to make a public appearance and organize a Hollywood-worthy funeral. She was sceptical at first, until her press attaché and Charles—attempting to save his own head—intervened. The Queen arrived in London to inspect the lovely flowers, say a few words on TV and authorize a public funeral. Thanks to Blair, the institution was saved for another hundred years.
As I said, the acting in this film is excellent.
Helen Mirren's resemblance to Elizabeth is remarkable, but like most of the actors playing the Royals, she conveys much more intelligence than is discernable from any video I've ever seen of Her Majesty. She communicates a great deal with a repertoire of slight aristocratic gestures, but it seems she is being more than generous with her subject. Likewise James Cromwell is snooty enough to pass as Philip and Alex Jennings ugly enough to pass as Charles, but all in all the characters they give us are too sympathetic for my liking. Although Philip bemoans the presence of homosexuals at Diana's funeral, he is otherwise portrayed as a charming old gentleman, a far cry from the bumbling chauvinist who described Diana as a "Good breed."
In the end, I wonder if the central theme of Shrears film isn't a bit fanciful: did the fate of the English monarchy really hang in balance over the course of that week?
Does any of this history really matter? Is it enough of a contradiction to hold our attention for 100 minutes? In the end, despite the strong performances, the film is a very shallow examination of the anachronisms of a twentieth-century monarchy.
For me the real question is: didn't Blair have anything better to do in his first weeks in office than organizing celebrity funerals?
But then given his subsequent record of privatization, clampdowns on immigration, restrictions of civil rights, and waging of war, perhaps we have something to thank Diana for after all: at least she kept him occupied.