If you happen to be a woman of a certain age, pretty much the entire public life of Diana, Princess of Wales, is inscribed on your psyche. You got up early to watch her wedding to Prince Charles, you followed the births of her boys, the growing friction between her and Charles, their eventual divorce, and then her life post-HRH closely. You remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when you heard she’d died in a car crash in Paris, and you watched every minute you could of the coverage of the week leading up to her funeral, and then the funeral itself.
In terms of chronology, The Queen is primarily about that week and how the royal family, particularly Elizabeth II, did or didn’t react to what the rest of the world was experiencing. It’s also about much more than that, about both the anachronisms of royalty and why there is still a place for a royal family, or at least for a queen.
I think there are two primary aspects to The Queen’s appeal as a film. First, there’s a sense of getting an insider’s view of what was really happening that week, as relatively new prime minister Tony Blair came into his own and the royal family came dangerously close to completely losing the support of the British rank and file. If you don’t recall what went on, the Windsors were up at Balmoral in Scotland when Diana was killed. Charles flew to Paris to bring back her body, but otherwise there was almost no sign of any member of the family, and no public statements were made. Most obviously, the flagpole atop Buckingham Palace in London was bare; people wanted the Union Jack flown at half mast to show respect for Diana. Hundreds and thousands of floral bouquets piled up outside Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, and other royal sites, but still nothing from the royal family. The movie traces the back and forth between 10 Downing Street and Balmoral, as Blair tries to convince Elizabeth of the need for her to take public action to acknowledge, and comfort, her subjects.
The second appeal is the performances. Mirren is every bit as good as you’ve read or heard. Her Elizabeth is all-too human, and even when you disagree with what she’s doing, you have some sense of why she’s behaving as she is. Michael Sheen plays Tony Blair, and he’s terrific as well (and looks amazingly like Blair). Both of their characters are quite likable, and they’re really the center of the story.
James Cromwell plays a cold Prince Philip. He has some concern for Elizabeth, and in his own way for the young princes William and Harry, but certainly none for Diana and he cannot fathom the depth of public response. Alex Jennings plays a quite befuddled and fearful Prince Charles, who’s seen to go against the family in some ways, but not overtly. Sylvia Syms plays the Queen Mother, and while Syms is excellent, the depiction of the Queen Mother was very different than my image of her – she seems just as clueless as Prince Philip, although certainly not cruel. (I’ve asked friends who are British about this portrayal, and they agree it’s at odds with the general perception of the Queen Mother as someone who had a good sense of the public.) There are many other strong performances, notably Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair, twitting her husband on his affection for the monarchy, or at least this monarch.
William and Harry are only seen from the back and have no lines, and that seemed very appropriate. That’s perhaps another element of The Queen’s success; while there is that sense of peeking beneath the veil, it’s handled respectfully. Director Stephen Frears does an outstanding job of handling what could be very touchy material.
I’m not sure you have to be fully aware of Diana’s story to appreciate this film, but I suspect it helps. I was struck by the inclusion of news footage from the time showing the crowds at the palaces and along the streets as Diana’s coffin was moved from the airport to St. James Palace – it certainly brought back memories of that time.
A making of featurette includes interviews with most of the cast and with Frears and others on the production staff. It covers both how the film was done and what they were trying to accomplish. It’s especially interesting to listen to Mirren talk about how her perceptions of Elizabeth II were affected by the film. There are also two commentary tracks, one with Frears and Peter Morgan, the screenwriter, and the other with Robert Lacey, who is a historian and author of a book on Elizabeth II. He makes some intriguing observations and brings a nice sense of context.
The Queen is both a look at a period in history and a human study of people trying to cope with changes they’re not fully aware of. It’s well worth watching.
Technical specs: English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround; Spanish language track and subtitles.