Princess Di gets royal treatment in ‘The Queen’
December 19, 2006
Aspen, CO Colorado”The Queen,” director Stephen Frears’ fictional examination of the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana, divides the British upper crust into two camps. On the one side is Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and the rest of the royal family, intent on keeping any observations of Diana’s death a private matter. Princess Di, telegenic and outgoing – “the people’s princess,” as mentioned several times in the film – had already provided enough headlines, and her split with Prince Charles was like manna from heaven for the tabloids. At least let us keep our grieving (or lack thereof) within the family, is the queen’s view. Moreover, Queen Elizabeth is of the World War II generation, instinctively stoic and private.
In opposition is Tony Blair, who, at the time of the princess’s death, in 1997, had just been elected Britain’s prime minister. Blair (Michael Sheen) is of a type that is all but unrecognizable to Her Majesty: young (just 44 at the time of his election), informal and fully cognizant that the state of massive media has made it impossible to ignore the public in such a public matter as the death of a princess. While the queen and her family hole up at their country estate, Blair is reading the headlines and keeping his ear out for the citizens’ response. And the people are clamoring for a royal response – a flag at half-staff, a statement, something to indicate that the family is with them in their time of sadness.”The Queen” doesn’t exactly erase this divide; in the final scene, Her Highness and the prime minister are not hugging and kissing, but still eyeing each other with suspicion. But the film details exquisitely the dance between these two characters, filling the gap between them with a full range of humanity. At one point, Blair chews out an aide who disparages the queen for her stuffiness and out-of-date views. The queen cries over the beauty of a wild deer; if she can’t summon tears over her deceased former daughter-in-law, at least she can for an animal.
In case we have missed how fully formed these characters are, Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan have given us sharp contrasts: Prince Philip (James Cromwell) is a simpleton, whose unwavering advice for Diana’s bereaved children is to get them into the woods, guns in hand, looking for something to shoot. At Blair’s side is his wife, Cherie, whose criticism of the royal family is shrill and eye-rolling. Their presence makes the push-and-pull that goes on between the two principal antagonists all the more real and dynamic, and it makes “The Queen” one of the finest films of the year.We should expect as much from Frears. Here is a director who handles contemporary stories (“The Queen”) and period pieces (“Dangerous Liaisons”), romantic comedies (“High Fidelity”) and gritty realism (“Dirty Pretty Things”), mob dramas (“The Grifters”) and theater dramas (last year’s “Mrs. Henderson Presents”) and infuses them all with intelligence and insight.
Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings series continues with daily screenings (except Sunday, Dec. 24) through Jan. 1. For complete program details, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/film.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org