All hail ‘The Queen’
November 30, 2006
In a scene from Stephen Frears’ “The Queen,” Queen Elizabeth II gets teary-eyed during a close-up encounter with a magnificent buck deer. In another scene, Prime Minister Tony Blair turns furiously on an aide who disparages the queen for her stuffy, old-fashioned ways.Both scenes run very much counter to the overall portrayals in “The Queen,” which examines the English response to the death of Princess Diana. The queen, played by Helen Mirren, is not easily given to shedding tears – at least not over human beings, and most especially not over Diana, whose high profile and split with Prince Charles made tabloid fodder of the British royals. Queen Elizabeth had watched her uncle, King Edward, abdicate the throne after 11 months, leaving her father, King George, to deal with a mess of a monarchy. Moreover, the queen’s seminal formative experience was World War II, and she is very much of that generation, stoic and private.
Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) is from another side of history. He was just 41 when he became the Labour Party leader in 1994; three years later he won a landslide victory to become prime minister, ending two decades of rule by the Conservative Party. Like his stateside contemporary Bill Clinton, Blair was expert at locating the pulse of his people, and in offering pronouncements in accord with those public sentiments. In other words, the quintessential politician, driven as much by the media as by inner principals. Blair is also informal; on his first introduction to the queen, he needs a lesson on how properly to address her highness. The sense of familiarity – with the public, the press, the royal family – puts him at severe odds with the royals.Following the death of Princess Diana, the Brits want word from Buckingham Palace. Diana was, as she is referred to by numerous commoners in the film, “the people’s princess.” Moreover, she died in a time of media saturation, when the public expects – and receives – commentary on virtually every matter, public and private. (It was that very thirst for celebrity news that killed Diana and her lover, as they were chased through a tunnel in Paris by paparazzi.) Queen Elizabeth – with vigorous support from her even more stoic husband, Prince Philip (James Cromwell), and her mum, the Queen Mother (Sylvia Sims) – refuses to address her subjects on the matter of Diana. There will be no public funeral, no flags at half-mast. In fact, no royal presence at all, as Elizabeth decides that her family will remain at Balmoral, the remote country estate, rather than return to London.
The showdown between the queen and the prime minister drives the film, and the gifted director Frears brings forth all the issues this rich palette affords. “The Queen” examines the personality traits of the World War II generation. Prince Philip, for instance, comments repeatedly that the best thing for Diana and Charles’ bereaved sons is to get out in the woods and shoot deer. It dissects both the curious vestige that is the British monarchy and the attachment Brits have to it. And it reveals the vast changes in the way people see the world that have occurred over a relatively short span of years.Underlying these broad concerns is an effective and most generous character study. While Frears’ sympathies side with Tony Blair, “The Queen” doesn’t crush its title character. When Queen Elizabeth does come around to Blair’s way of thinking, she does it with grace. Some part of her actually begins to see the wisdom of opening up to the public. And Blair isn’t triumphant in his victory; he has discovered an appreciation for the queen. This is no winner-take-all battle, but a political challenge in which both parties compromise for the common good.In the process, these are characters who develop to the final scene.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.orgThe Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.