“Hanging on in quiet desperation
is the English Way” – Pink Floyd in “Time”
I will readily admit it.
I simply never understood the fascination in this country regarding
Princess Diana. We fought a revolution because we rejected the
concept of Royalty and the Devine Rights of Kings, so why were we so
entranced by the wedding, tabloid life, and tragic death of a young
woman from another country?
In some regard the movie “The
Queen” helps. No, it doesn’t help me out with the “why”
as far as America goes, but it does reveal the psyche of a country where
her death, and more importantly the reaction to her death by the Royal
Family, were so emotional as to almost bring down the Monarchy.
A fictionalized version of real events, it was a absorbing lesson in
recent history that I did not expect going in.
Like last year’s exemplary “Good
Night, and Good Luck”, this historical drama focuses on a very short
period of time rather than being a biopic of the life of Queen Elizabeth
II. With the exception of a few short scenes depicting the initial
election victory of Tony Blair in May of 1997, and a single scene at
the end, all the action takes place in the seven day period from the
crash that claimed Diana’s life through her public funeral.
But as opposed to “Good Night and Good Luck”, this is more a character
study of the people involved as opposed to a retelling of the circumstances.
The storyline itself is rather
sparse. After Diana’s death, the Royal Family does not feel
any need to make public statements, nor return to London from their
vacation palace Balmoral in Scotland. They, mostly in the form
of the Queen, her husband Prince Phillip, and the Queen Mother, see
it strictly as a private matter to be dealt with per protocol, aided
by large amounts of stereotypical British Stoicism.
Back home in London, it is a far
different story. The people of Great Britain are beside themselves
in grief. Newscasts show numerous impromptu memorials for the
Princess, and the front gate of Buckingham Palace quickly becomes overrun
with flowers, stuffed animals, and written notes of sympathy.
Two days after the crash, the people start to turn their anger towards
the Royal Family, particularly Queen Elizabeth. The Royal Family’s
decision to treat it “with dignity and privacy” comes across to
the general public as cold indifference at best or a rejection of Diana
As the newly elected Prime Minister
with less than six months on the job, Tony Blair demonstrates an excellent
political feel for the situation. He makes the first speech on
the subject coming from a high government official, and endears himself
to the citizens by his moving tribute, where he coins the phrase “the
People’s Princess” in reference to Diana. As his popularity
skyrockets, some on his staff (and also his wife) recommend pushing
the conflict in hopes of weakening the Monarchy and ushering in an absolute
Republic. But although Blair is a Populist and a Modernist, he
is not willing to advocate such a radical move. Instead, he spends
most of the movie serving in the manner first designed for the Prime
Minister, advising the King/Queen. Blair knows that in a 24/7
news cycle world, it is necessary to do things differently from “how
they’ve always been done”. The Queen may actually be right
in regards to the funeral being a private matter, but “right or wrong”
has nothing to do with it...it is a matter of perception and in this
case the people must be appeased. So it falls to Blair the thankless
task to convince the Queen to change her mind. A matter made much
more difficult with the arrogant kibitzing from Prince Phillip (James
Cromwell at his most obnoxious).
While this may all sound a bit
boring, it’s made infinitely more interesting due to a crisp and often
moving script from Peter Morgan (who also wrote “The Last King of
Scotand”), outstanding directing from Stephen Frears (“High Fidelity”),
and most importantly, extraordinary work from the cast.
Helen Mirren gives one of the
most remarkable performances from an actress I’ve seen in some time
as Elizabeth II. The physical resemblance is, of course, uncanny...but
it is in her amazing capturing of all the nuances of one of the world’s
most complicated women where her talent shines through. Mirren
gives great insight into a woman who has ruled for forty-five years
(as of 1997), and has seen the world change exponentially in that time.
She captures the elitist attitudes of British high royalty quite well,
but does not stoop to making Elizabeth into a haughty, uncaring person.
Elizabeth does have feelings, but for the most part she keeps them to
herself simply because she feels that as Queen, her personal feelings
are not nearly as important as her Duty. However, in less guarded
moments Mirren shows her as a woman deeply affected by all that is going
on, and hurt by the thought that “her people” disapprove of her.
In one touching scene, the ancient Land Rover she drives has broken
down in a small stream on the estate (“the Queen would drive?”,
asks my wife...and then I do some research and find that young Elizabeth
was trained as a driver in the British Army in WWII). Alone, and
finally away from the eyes of all her subjects, including her family,
she breaks down in tears.
Michael Sheen is almost the equal
to Mirren as he gives an exceptional performance as Tony Blair.
He also very much looks the part of the person he is playing; a young
Prime Minister trying to act as the buffer between an angry populace
and the seemingly clueless royals. “Will somebody PLEASE save these
people from themselves!” Blair laments after his third or fourth attempt
at convincing the Queen to make a statement is rebuked. Sheen
effortlessly portrays all the qualities of a highly skilled politician
and charismatic leader...saying all the right things and trying to be
all things to all people without once coming across as a phony.
Alex Jennings shows Prince Charles
in quite a different light as well...as a man emotionally frayed after
Diana’s death. In Jennings’ performance, one can see a man
conflicted between his past anger and contempt towards his ex-wife and
his sorrow regarding her death, especially how it has impacted his two
sons; a fact seemingly forgotten by the rest of the family. Charles
also understands the political ramifications much better than his parents,
and quietly works behind the scenes to encourage Blair in his efforts.
I came out of this movie thinking
a lot differently than when I came in. Mostly, I have a much higher
level of respect for the Queen, Prince Charles, and especially Tony
Blair. It is highly doubtful that anyone in American politics
could survive in the tabloid and confrontation heavy world of British
politics. The portrayals given by Mirren and Sheen, said to be
accurate by those familiar with the real people, show two very human
public figures who best exemplify the expression “grace under fire”.
My Rating: Brian Sipe (3
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