Stephen Frears' new film, The Queen, is a docudrama concerned chiefly with the week in 1997 between Princess Diana's death and her funeral. Tony Blair (here played by Underworld's Michael Sheen) has just been elected to the office of Prime Minister and had one meeting with Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren, Prime Suspect) when the tragedy occurs. In the days that follow, the public grief rises, but Elizabeth appears unmoved by it. She feels Diana is not deserving of the full treatment accorded a Royal, as the Princess had been divorced from Prince Charles (Alex Jennings, Five Children & It) for a year. Besides, in her mind, it's a family matter, and for the sake of her grandchildren, it should be dealt with privately.
Or so she says. As the film wears on and Blair quietly urges her to change her ways, it becomes clear that her refusal to budge is based more on pride and circumstance than any real hurt or feelings of betrayal, the things that are supposed to make us feel sorry for this out-of-touch woman. Her husband, Prince Philip--who James Cromwell plays as a blustery, yet henpecked, stuffed shirt--acts as the opposing side to Blair's touchy-feely approach to appeasing the people. His reaction to all the brouhaha is to take the boys out hunting for the biggest stag the royal estate has seen for some time. It's a none-too-subtle metaphor that is actually handled rather gingerly. The activity of hunting is referred to as "stalking" in the British slang, and besides it being a rather lame solution to the problem at hand, one wonders why there is such a vehement desire to destroy such a fine animal if it truly is a more elegant specimen than they are used to. When the Queen sees the stag out in the woods, she admires its beauty, and she's saddened to hear it has accidentally wandered someplace it should not have been and got killed by an investment banker on holiday. It's kind of groan-inducing when you put it all together, but it works in its own fashion.
Unfortunately, the rest of the tribulations of the Royal family are cut from a fashion that has gone out of style. As I watched them stroll the halls of their massive home, worrying about headlines and discussing the citizens of England as some kind of abstraction that is only there to grease the wheels of tradition, I found myself asking why I should care for these people. Their lives are ludicrous, and if Queen Elizabeth is that disconntected from the modern world, then it seems to me she's much more deserving of a pen dipped in poison than sympathy. I don't have much room to forgive people the world has made obsolete when the reason for that obsolescence is they were too wrapped up in lives of privilege to see that change was afoot. At one point, Blair explodes at an aide, insisting that the Queen gave up her life for her country despite never wanting the job, and I thought, "Oh, well, boo-hoo." Maybe if Frears (Dirty Pretty Things) and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland) hadn't already told us how much money it costs the country to keep her in the lifestyle she's accustomed to, or if they'd shown her do more than walk her dogs and eat jam off of muffins, I'd be more willing to accept the argument. Instead, I ended up siding with Cherie Blair (Helen McCrory, Casanova), who eventually looks at her husband like he's been taken over by the pod people. I just can't see much sense in a movie hard selling the supposed rigors of opulence.
To be fair, both Frears and Morgan have put a lot of thought and research into The Queen (even if it is intended to be taken partially as "fiction"). The movie is shot in an unpretentious style, and they have managed to show us how foolish the Royals can be without editorializing. The Queen comes across as a very straightforward account, and I understand that they are trying to be more fair than the media the film indicts, so kudos in that regard. Additionally, Helen Mirren is exceptional in the role of Queen Elizabeth. The actress manages to carry the weight of the crown while also bringing all her character's conflicting emotions to the fore. Part of how Frears gets away with the scenes with the stag is how tender Mirren's expression is when she watches the buck graze. And yet, there is not enough tenderness shown anywhere else to pull out my compassion. Even as the Queen's exterior softens, it's only because of a gesture directed at her, that alleviates her despair, which is a despair that is not born out of Diana's death or the reactions of her subjects, but instead out of the vitriol being aimed at her. Queen Elizabeth never says she's sorry Diana is gone, just that she doesn't like being hated. It's a false transformation, one that deserves more sneers than pity.
Perhaps it would have been better to avoid this sentimentalizing and to be less evenhanded, sticking with a more traditional clash of old and new and actually taking a side in the argument for or against the Royals. Portions of The Queen exhibit that it has the potential to pull off its portrayal of how power can be forced to warp when under the hot glare of the humanity it seeks to rule, a theme worthy of the Shakespeare quote that starts the picture, but the filmmakers lose their way when they try to personalize. Maybe it's just too soon to see this kind of portrait of a flawed monarch who is still alive, whereas Shakespeare has the benefit of history. Or maybe it's that there's not enough dramatic sweep, there's no comeuppance, just Tony Blair's soft shoulder to cry on. Whatever the path, The Queen didn't take it, and so it ends up being practically as stiff and unemotional as the people it intended to illuminate.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.