The Queen

Laurie Sparham/Miramax Films
Stephen Frears/United Kingdom 2006

There has been considerable debate over the films set around the events of 9/11 and whether those, such as United 93 and World Trade Center, are guilty of being brought to the screen too soon. The same question could perhaps be posed by Stephen Frears’ The Queen. Not because of accusations of insensitivity or the possibility of causing offense to those involved, but whether it is actually worth dramatizing events that occurred less than 10 years ago and which, thanks largely to media saturation, are firmly etched upon our collective memory.

The film tells the story of the week following the death of Princess Diana from the point of view of both the royal family and the newly elected Tony Blair. The nervous PM finds himself riding a magic carpet of public sympathy following his declaration that Diana was “The People’s Princess”. Meanwhile, the royals come under critical siege by their own subjects, who have been whipped up by an opportunistic press into a hysterical frenzy of weeping and wailing. The people demand no less than for their rulers to tear down the emotional barricades and join them as they wallow in grief.

But of course, what actually went on in the offices of No. 10 and the opulent rooms of Balmoral that week can only be imagined. Peter Morgan’s screenplay, as with his previous script, The Deal, is a well educated best guess. This aside, however, there is still much to admire in The Queen. The film neatly encapsulates the dilemma of a constitutional monarch’s need to make concessions to democracy while remaining steadfast in the belief that she is right simply because of who she is.

Visually, the film seldom rises above the level of a well-polished TV production apart from the occasional sweeping Scottish vistas. This is an intimate affair which may have been better suited to the small screen, a feeling enhanced by the juxtaposition of dramatized scenes alongside genuine news reports of a mournful proletariat. Of course, it is the talent involved that has upgraded The Queen into something cinematic. Indeed, this is a film that stands or falls on its casting which could so easily have gone wrong, presenting us with a collection of grotesque caricatures à la “Fluck and Law”.

Some performances do play to our expectations – including James Cromwell as a grumpy, shotgun happy Prince Phillip and Sylvia Syms as a slightly dotty Queen Mother. Michael Sheen, in his second turn at being Blair following The Deal, has the part down to perfection. But it is Helen Mirren who has landed the more difficult job, portraying the unfamiliar, private side of Her Majesty.

It is when Mirren’s Elizabeth addresses a TV nation in the recognizable, clipped tones that we realize she has succeeded magnificently. This is no mere impersonation, but a fully rounded characterization never more evident than when the Queen, alone in the Highlands, comes face to face with a stag. Great Britain’s monarch meets the Monarch of the Glen with a genuine sense of empathy. They are both regal yet under threat, surrounded by those who would happily bring their reign to a swift end. Later, upon hearing that the stag has been shot, she views its hanging carcass. Her sadness in the moment is palpable until she snaps back into accepted protocol and congratulates the successful huntsman. The Queen may not last the test of time as an historical document, but it will remain a constant testament to an actress at the height of her powers.

© 2006 Alan Diment. All rights reserved.

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