February 2023

The Queen (2006)

DIRECTOR: Stephen Frears

CAST: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Helen McCrory, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam, Sylvia Syms


With The Queen, director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan set out with several agendas: humanize the British monarch while at the same time critiquing the out-of-touch isolation of the royal family, and chronicle in docudrama fashion the key time period in the immediate aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, and the fledgling relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and newly-elected Prime Minister Tony Blair. It has succeeded on all fronts, turning what could potentially have been a dry, stuffy, talky affair into a fascinating and compelling drama and character study. One needn’t be a royal family aficionado (though of course that helps) to find The Queen engaging viewing.

Apart from opening scenes depicting the election of Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and his first encounter with Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren), The Queen depicts events on and in the week following August 31, 1997, when Princess Diana, the Queen’s controversial but widely beloved former daughter-in-law, was killed in a car accident while being hounded and pursued by paparazzi in a Paris tunnel. A nationwide—and international—outpouring of grief was met with stony silence from Buckingham Palace. Elizabeth and the royal family are away on vacation at the time of Diana’s death, and are slow to return, considering it a private matter which no longer involves them because the divorced Diana was no longer a royal, but their attitude is out-of-step with public sentiment, and to a nation in grief and seeking reassurance from their leaders, the Queen’s seeming indifference sparks a public backlash. Meanwhile, Blair is younger, middle-class, more in tune with the public, and his correct reading of their mood convinces him that they need some show of acknowledgment from the Crown. His comparative show of empathy makes him more popular than ever, especially when he dubs Diana “the people’s princess”, a quote that sticks. Blair is worried the public vitriol could damage the monarchy, however, and tries to persuade the Queen to change her mind, but despite finding a couple allies including the Queen’s son and Diana’s ex-husband Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), getting through to Elizabeth proves easier said than done. The Queen: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Sylvia  Syms, Alex Jennings, Helen McCrory, Roger Allam, Tim McMullan, Douglas  Reith, Stephen Frears: Movies & TV

While there’s an ensemble of supporting players who flit in and out of the story, The Queen is largely a two-person show and a study in contrasts between the long-reigning monarch (who has served for fifty years and seen ten Prime Ministers come and go, starting with Winston Churchill), and the fresh-faced young PM. Coming in after his landslide victory when his popularity was at an all-time high (before it was tainted by controversies including the war in Iraq and Afghanistan), Blair is portrayed as inexperienced and at times a little in over his head, intimidated and uncertain when it comes to his encounters with the Queen, but brimming with youthful energy and “can do” optimism, coming aboard with an ambitious agenda to modernize Britain and shake up outdated traditions (an attitude which does not always have the royals looking favorably upon him). In stark contrast to the Queen, he lives in a thoroughly “ordinary” middle-class apartment and is married to a woman (Helen McCrory) who is not shy about her anti-monarchy sentiments. Blair is more sympathetic towards the Queen, and wants to save her from herself. As her popularity plummets, his skyrockets, but he feels the hatred spewed against her—including by his own wife and some of his staffers—reaches an over-the-top level, hitting his limit late in the film when he launches into an impassioned tirade in her defense. For its own part, the movie neither glorifies nor vilifies the royals, portraying them as living in a cocoon of privileged isolation—often away from Buckingham Palace at their Scottish Highlands retreat Balmoral—that has left them out-of-touch and oblivious when it comes to understanding the feelings of the public, but they are presented as human beings, not caricatures (especially Elizabeth, who gets the central focus and is therefore the most developed individual among them). In fact, there are times when both Blair’s wife Cherie and his spokesman and campaign manager Alastair Campbell (Mark Bazeley), who share scathingly negative views of the monarchy, are more abrasive and less likable than any of the royals portrayed onscreen, although one could argue that the portrayal of Elizabeth’s blunt-tongued husband Prince Philip (James Cromwell) is not always particularly flattering.

When it comes to Elizabeth’s opposition to a public memorial for Diana—an attitude for which she drew severe public backlash—the movie takes a fairly even-handed approach. From Elizabeth’s perspective, she is both respecting the wishes of the Spencer family (who expressly wish for a low-key private ceremony) and following protocols (Diana is technically no longer entitled to a state funeral sponsored by The Crown because she was no longer a member of the royal family), but however technically “correct” her stance may be, her aloofness from her subjects leaves her out-of-touch with the British public’s need for catharsis, and while she would deny it, her judgment is tainted by her personal disdain for her late former daughter-in-law. Prince Charles is more openly emotional than his mother (and sometimes resentful of her lack of emotional support), portrayed as grief-stricken by the death of his ex-wife and agreeing with Blair that his mother is making a mistake (though his motives are not pure, seeing the PR nightmare coming that his mother is oblivious to). Charles, however, is in a tricky position; he cannot be seen to be publicly disagreeing with his mother yet wants to save her—and himself by extension—from public backlash, so he resorts to surreptitiously attempting to establish a back channel of communication with Blair.

I can’t speak to how much “insider information” The Queen is working off of, or its exact historical accuracy, and inevitably some scenes of the royals in private are by necessity speculative inventions, but it has a convincing feel of docudrama realism. Frequent incorporation of real news broadcasts surrounding Diana’s death and the aftermath, footage of the ever-growing pile of flowers and memorials at the palace gates, snippets of interviews with grief-stricken British citizens, and footage of Diana’s funeral (attended by such luminaries, glimpsed in archive footage, as Elton John, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Hanks, among others), adds to the sense of almost documentary verisimilitude. Ironically, the movie comes out at a time when the pendulum has swung back the other way from some of the attitudes depicted onscreen, including a revival in favorable public opinion toward the monarchy and a downturn in Tony Blair’s popularity following his controversial affiliation with US President George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq, but it does an effective job of capturing the brief period of time—a span of a hectic few days—in which it takes place.

Helen Mirren to Play Queen Elizabeth Again in 'The Audience' | Helen mirren  the queen, Helen mirren, Dame helen mirren

On the acting front, Michael Sheen imbues Tony Blair with a sunny grin and a boyish spring in his step mixed with uncertainties in navigating his new position and how to deal with the Queen, let alone during such a delicate time period (incidentally, this isn’t the first time Sheen has played Blair; that was in 2003’s The Deal, which was likewise a Frears/Morgan production). But while Sheen is solid, the plum role goes to Helen Mirren, who sinks beneath the skin of Queen Elizabeth II (looking the part with the help of wardrobe, hairstyle, and large glasses). Next to the comparatively straightforward and accessible Blair, Mirren gets the trickier task of humanizing a monarch who sometimes seems cold and aloof, making her performance more challenging and therefore more impressive. Outwardly, it’s a low-key and non-flashy role—Elizabeth is a stoic, outwardly unemotional figure—but Mirren invests her performance with conviction and presents the monarch who could have slipped into a stuffy caricature as a fully-formed, three-dimensional human being with both virtues and foibles. While she has an outwardly stoic and aloof demeanor, we get private glimpses where she is neither as stuffy nor as icy as her detractors take her for, unafraid of driving herself behind the wheel of her Range Rover or hiking on long treks in the Scottish countryside, and possessed of a dry, sometimes acerbic sense of humor. While we tend to side more with Blair’s opinion, the movie does not present Elizabeth as a “villain”; Mirren portrays the long-serving monarch as genuinely believing she is doing the right thing for her subjects but whose out-of-touch isolation from them has given her a gaping blind spot about what that is. When her misjudged inaction draws harsh public backlash, it leaves her taken aback and harboring self-doubts. Her glimmers of vulnerability—a late-night bedside admission that she may bear some of the blame for how things worked out with Charles and Diana, later confiding to her mother her self-doubts and worry that she no longer understands her own people, a moment in the Highland countryside in which she is moved by the sight of a magnificent stag, and moments where she is clearly hurt by the public’s negative view of her—are affecting because they come from a woman for whom emotion is not easily shown (for what it’s worth, the real Queen viewed the film and was apparently satisfied enough with her portrayal that she invited Mirren to dinner).

This is Sheen and Mirren’s movie, but they’re backed up by a capable supporting cast, including James Cromwell as Elizabeth’s blunt, sometimes abrasive husband Prince Philip, Alex Jennings as Prince Charles, trying to play both sides between Elizabeth and Blair, Sylvia Syms as the elderly Queen Mother, Roger Allam as Elizabeth’s faithful personal secretary Robin Janvrin, and Helen McCrory as Blair’s sharp-tongued anti-monarchist wife Cherie.

It goes without saying that the greater one’s interest in British royalty, the more likely one is to appreciate The Queen, but it’s been designed to be accessible to mainstream audiences. Frears directs with flair and Morgan’s script is lively and intelligent with its share of dry wit, although there’s no real “action”. The movie will likely play better with British audiences, for whom the Queen is a cultural icon, than to Americans for whom she is a distant and somewhat curious and antiquated figurehead. Nonetheless, the political maneuvering and gamesmanship going on behind-the-scenes and the character studies are compelling enough to interest nearly any fan of well-crafted serious drama.

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