I think Lt. Frank Drebin said it best in “The Naked Gun”: “No matter how silly the idea of having a queen might be to us, as Americans we must be gracious and considerate hosts.” Occasionally the people of Great Britain think having a queen is outdated, too, particularly when she does something they don’t like, as in 1997, when she failed to fling herself weeping onto the cobblestone streets of London after Princess Diana died. The people wanted some tears; the queen wanted to remain stoic.
“The Queen,” a completely absorbing and meticulously well-acted drama by director Stephen Frears (“High Fidelity,” “Dangerous Liaisons”), recounts that perilous time in Queen Elizabeth II’s tenure, a week of uncertainty in what had theretofore been a life of royal protocol and predictability. How does someone of the queen’s age, upbringing, and title react to someone like Princess Di? How does public opinion influence the behavior of one of the longest-reigning monarchs in the world? When must a ruler demand that her subjects follow her, and when must she follow her subjects?
I have only a passing interest in the British monarchy, but I loved everything about “The Queen.” I came out of it admiring and respecting Elizabeth, and idolizing Helen Mirren, who plays her with such astonishing perfection. I don’t mean that Mirren does a dead-on impersonation of the queen’s voice or mannerisms. (I wouldn’t know if she did.) I mean that Mirren plays this character — a woman who is dignified, reserved, weary of scrutiny, resigned to a life of service, and who is also a daughter, mother, and grandmother — so vividly and completely that I love the character. She is the picture of strength and propriety in a time when those qualities are seen as snobbish or standoffish.
The film begins in May 1997 with the election of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) as England’s prime minister. The queen and her advisers, chiefly her loyal secretary Robin Janvrin (Roger Allam), are concerned that Blair is a “modernist” whose people view the monarchy as an antiquated, useless old system. Why, the people in Blair’s office will probably be calling one another by their first names! Pish-posh!
These estimates are not far off. Blair is tactful, of course, but his staff members are decidedly modern-government types, not fond of pomp and circumstance and not at all convinced something as quaint as a “queen” should have any say in what happens in Parliament. Blair’s wife, Cherie (Helen McCrory), is the worst offender, describing the monarchy as “freeloading, emotionally retarded nutters.”
It’s a peculiar position to be in supreme authority over people who don’t take your authority seriously. It’s embarrassing. Exerting your authority under those circumstances just makes the fact that you have authority all the more awkward. But if you stop exercising it, it looks like you’re agreeing with the detractors.
The queen is unfazed by Blair’s modernist attitudes, but soon the issue hits home: Less than four months after Blair takes office, Princess Diana is killed in a car crash and all of England goes to pieces. The queen’s view is that Diana, having been divorced from Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) a year earlier, is no longer part of the royal family and hence the royal family need not make any official fuss over her death. Technically, of course she is right. But the English people viewed Diana as “their” princess, and they assume the royal family will join them in their outpouring of grief. When days pass without comment from Buckingham Palace, they decry the queen as out of touch with the common Briton.
Meanwhile, modernist Tony Blair HAS commented on Diana, and his words have hit exactly the right tone with the people. His speechwriter, Alastair Campbell (Mark Bazeley), a hardcore anti-royalist, smirks at his boss’ sudden popularity over that sodden old queen. But Blair only meant his public statements to be comforting, not to one-up Her Majesty. He likes and respects the woman herself and feels bad over the beating she’s taking in the press. What’s more, he has to be the one to call her and offer his unsolicited advice: that she cave in and do what the people want her to do.
Can you imagine calling the QUEEN OF ENGLAND to tell her she’s wrong and should do things differently?
Wisely, the film doesn’t overstate this. It doesn’t state it at all. The efficient, streamlined screenplay — written by Peter Morgan, whose script for “The Last King of Scotland” also treats a historical political figure with great intelligence — shows us early on how the queen interacts with people. There isn’t a great deal of ceremony in her day-to-day life: She treats her household staff almost informally, she dresses dowdily and drives the Range Rover herself when she wants to tool around her Scotland estate; her general comportment is quiet dignity, not ostentatious displays of power. Yet at the same time, certain protocols must be followed. New visitors are instructed on when they may shake the queen’s hand or speak to her, and while failure to follow these rules does not result in beheadings, it is certainly frowned upon. She’s too modest to say it, and everyone calls her “Ma’am” rather than “Your Majesty,” but she’s the frickin’ QUEEN OF ENGLAND, for crying out loud!
Director Frears and cinematographer Affonso Beato execute a sublime effect in the way they shoot the scenes set amongst the royals versus the ones in Blair’s camp. Everything involving the queen and her family is composed in a stately manner and well-polished, the camera moving gracefully if it moves at all, and always taking a straightforward perspective. With Blair, the camera is prone to more movement and less traditional angles. What’s more, the picture itself (shot on Super-16 film rather than 35mm) is slightly grainy, giving it a rougher, more down-in-the-ditches feel. This dovetails nicely with the actual news footage of Diana’s mourners that has been included, which, of course, being actual news footage, is grainier still. The further you get from the queen’s insulated palace, the more gritty the picture becomes — a visual metaphor for the movie’s central themes, in an era when most filmmakers don’t bother making visual metaphors. Like everything else in the movie, you’ll feel the effect whether you notice what’s causing it or not.
The film’s true brilliance is in the way it aligns our sympathies with the queen even though 1) nearly everyone else is against her and 2) she turns out to have been wrong about the way to handle Diana’s death. We understand her point of view. Her husband, Prince Philip (James Cromwell), speaks for all of upper-crust society when he scoffs at the guest list for Di’s funeral: “A chorus line of soap stars and homosexuals.” THIS is what the public wants us to come out in favor of? A big embarrassing public spectacle where Elton John sings a pop tune? You want the QUEEN to endorse this? What, has all of England gone MAD?!
But more to the point, the queen has always reigned in the British tradition of stiff-upper-lippedness. One doesn’t wear one’s emotions on one’s sleeves. Whether she personally mourns Diana’s death or not (and Diana was a thorn in the monarchy’s side for much of her adult life), the queen doesn’t go out in public sobbing. It just isn’t done.
That Mirren is able to convey so much emotion in the role of someone who doesn’t show much emotion is nothing short of miraculous. By definition, there is no big melodramatic clip to show at the Oscars, because every second of Mirren’s performance is specifically non-showy, non-flashy and non-sentimental. But it’s there, in her facial expressions, in the slightest raise of her eyebrows, or in the tone of her perfect-diction voice. You could pick it apart to find the exact things she does to convey the character, but it’s more satisfying to simply look at the whole: The queen sheds tears only once in the film (and even then the camera respectfully shoots her only from the back), yet when it’s over you feel like you know everything about her.
A (1 hr., 37 min.; )