Director: Stephan Frears
Writer: Peter Morgan
Cinematography: Alfonso Beato
Starring: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell
Studio/Running Time: Miramax, 97 mins.
Although the latest ?lm from Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things) is called The Queen, it chronicles the days after Princess Diana’s fatal car crash and has nearly as much to say about newly elected prime minister Tony Blair and modern celebrity culture as it does Her Majesty. After the accident, the queen prefers to keep the family’s response private, but Blair believes she should speak to the rapidly growing throng of mourners outside Buckingham Palace.
It doesn’t sound suspenseful on paper, but The Queen is just that; it’s taut, energetic and frequently funny. What’s most interesting about the ?lm’s attitude is that it casts Blair as its hero, but instead of possessing the traits that we’ve admired in other movie heroes—courage, wit, accuracy with a pistol—this hero’s talent is that he has the ability to project an image the people want to see. What he thinks of Diana is never entirely clear, but in this ?lm—in this age—it hardly matters.
Meanwhile, the ?lmmakers are ever amazed by the queen’s inability to read the people the way Blair can. In this view of power, charisma is all-important, just as it is in The Last King of Scotland (also penned by screenwriter Peter Morgan). The rules that kept order in the old world are secondary to a well-played publicity campaign. Blair’s errors in the queen’s presence—the unwelcome kiss he plants on her hand or the shallowness of his wife’s curtsey—are merely comedic. But the queen’s faux pas—refusing to lower the ?ag or return from her country estate in Scotland—are seen as damaging to the monarchy. “We do things in this country quietly, with dignity,” she says initially, but later she admits that “something’s happened, there’s been a change, some shift in values.”
Frears takes us behind the doors of power and into the queen’s daily routine the same way United 93 takes us inside air-traf?c-control systems. It had never occurred to me that the queen might watch television before bedtime, might drive herself across the countryside in a Land Rover or use a cell phone when she plows into a ditch. But that’s what you see when you peer behind the curtain.
The screenplay reduces Elizabeth to human scale, but Helen Mirren, with a layered, realistic performance, brings her back from the brink of parody. If the entire royal family had bumbled around the house the way James Cromwell does as Prince Philip, the movie might have seemed like Fawlty Towers. But by playing Elizabeth as contrastingly sharp—even when she’s micalculating the public’s expectations—Mirren re-humanizes the caricature. She plays the queen not as someone unaware times have changed but as someone ?ghting to continue the old ways, more irked than confounded that people aren’t following the rules. To be given lessons on protocol from whippersnapper Tony Blair rankles her feathers, as does watching Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Elton John on television mourning someone who “wasn’t even an HRH” and being treated something like royalty themselves. These aren’t just blows to her ego but to her entire view of how the world ought to function.
It’s a clash of old and new, of royal privilege and celebrity privilege, and standing at the juncture is Diana, beholder of charisma, a royal and then a royal no more, a celebrity but one made through her connection to people who were born with power.