Actress Dame Helen Mirren played two Elizabeths in less than a year. First there was her remarkable performance as Elizabeth I (2005), for which she won an Emmy, a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award. This was immediately followed by her Oscar-winning essay as Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006), director Stephen Frears' and screenwriter Peter Morgan's dramatization of the tumultuous week following the death of Princess Diana. Though separated by four centuries of history, and while Elizabeth I covers decades of that queen's reign, the two films are in fact remarkably similar. Both are concerned with the conflict between their respective monarch's loyalty to their subjects and how this subjugates all else, including personal matters and private needs. (The film opens with the famous quote from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part II: "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.") In the simplest of terms, in Elizabeth I you have a queen who occasionally overindulges in the latter, while in The Queen its subject arguably goes too far in the other direction, stubbornly repressing the public expression of grief demanded by the hysterical masses, whipped by the media into a frenzy of mourning. This last element is explored in a particularly interesting way; nearly ten years after Diana's death, the royal family's bemusement at the outpouring of grief, symbolized by those veritable acres of flowers laid at the gates of Buckingham Palace, now appears much more understandable than it did to so many a decade ago.
Morgan's original screenplay pointedly contrasts the stifling tradition and Old World stuffiness of the royals with newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), the articulate but baby-faced Labor candidate who campaigned on a promise to modernize Great Britain and drag its aging traditions into the 21st century - including, possibly, making changes to its constitutional monarchy. Like the Queen's hairstyle, the Royal Family live in a secluded world stuck in time and ruled by traditions dating back a thousand years and more. The Blairs, meanwhile, exists in a recognizably modern and familiar world, the family described by Frears as "living like students." The film opens with Blair's arrival at Buckingham Palace the morning after his landslide victory. Morgan's script cleverly allows the film's audience to identify with Blair, nervous and excited to meet Her Majesty, but also a complete neophyte when it comes to royal protocal.
In an especially biting exchange, The Queen (Mirren) immediately puts Blair in his place, casually reminding him that "you are my 10th Prime Minister, Mr. Blair. My first was Winston Churchill."
The sudden death of the newly-divorced Diana, Princess of Wales in a car accident a few months later tests the Queen's relationship with her Prime Minister and vice versa, as well as the Queen's relationship with the people of Britain. Blair, whose wife, Cherie (Helen McCrory), is vehemently anti-monarchy, gradually comes to respect the Queen's all-consuming, lifelong devotion to her people, and it's hinted by Cherie that perhaps this is partly an outgrowth of Blair looking for a surrogate mother figure. (His own late mother was born the same year as Elizabeth.) (Mild Spoiler) In the film's marvelous epilogue, some time after Diana's death, Blair presumes a familiarity with the Queen that she clearly rejects. He may have helped her patch up a public relations disaster, but hers remains a tightly-closed world in which Blair merely has visitation privileges.
The source of the film's other great dramatic conflict involves the Windsors' perceived cold-heartedness, which generates a public relations nightmare. The public demand an equally public funeral for the "people's Princess," and are appalled when the royal standard, the flag noting when the Queen is "in residence" at Buckingham Palace, isn't replaced by a Union Jack flying at half-mast, and that the family has chosen to remain in seclusion at the family's very private summer hideaway, Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands. The Queen quite reasonably considers Diana's death a private, family matter, but in so doing greatly underestimates the popularity of her former daughter-in-law and is taken aback by the outpouring of grief. She stubbornly rejects calls to make a public statement and the like but eventually realizes that her personal disapproval of Diana's post-Charles life ultimately comes a distant second to the demand of her subjects. This realization and belated act of diplomacy greatly impresses Blair, whose own PR savvy handlers coldly use Diana's death for their own political jockeying purposes.
The Queen is as director Frears describes it, unsensational. It's really a character study of a long-popular monarch at a loss when a largely media-driven event, rightly or wrongly, becomes all-consuming throughout much of the world. Mirren is never less than outstanding. She says that she had an epiphany early on, realizing that the best approach to the character would be as a portrait painter imbues his paintings with the psychology of its subjects. One guesses this was suggested by Frears, as in nearly every shot of the Queen herself, Mirren is photographed in the manner of portrait paintings and the film even begins with Queen Elizabeth II having her portrait painted.
This approach avoids the tendencies of such dramas depicting famous living people toward mimicry, though at times Mirren so recedes into her character that it's easy to forget we're looking at a performance. Sheen, who resembles a young David Morse, does likewise and his characterization is similarly compelling. The other actors almost without exception look almost nothing like their real-life counterparts, particularly Alex Jennings' amusingly weak-willed Prince Charles and veteran character actress Sylvia Syms' Queen Mother (outraged by the plan put into action for Diana's funeral, she argues, "but Taybridge is the code name for my funeral!"), which intriguingly is depicted quite differently from her dearly-loved public image. Nevertheless, each of these performances work because of Morgan's character-rich screenplay, which draws on hundreds of interviews for its impressive verisimilitude.
Video & Audio
The Queen is presented in an excellent 16:9 enhanced transfer of 1.77:1 that approximates its original 1.85:1 release. The excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack offers an excellent audio mix that makes good use of Alexandre Desplat's score and includes aggressive but never distracting directional audio effects. A 2.0 Dolby Spanish track is available, as are English hard-of-hearing and Spanish subtitles.
Supplements include a 16:9 enhanced, 19-minute The Making of The Queen which covers all the expected bases in terms of production, performances, and historical accuracy and research. An Audio Commentary by Director Stephen Frears and Writer Peter Morgan expands on their comments in the documentary, while the Audio Commentary by British Historian and Royal Expert Robert Lacey, Author of "Majesty" details traditions less familiar to non-Brits and explores in further detail the events of that unforgettable week. The latter is a particularly welcome extra and, like the film, is not sensationalistic
The Queen is an excellent film fully deserving of its myriad accolades. This reviewer strongly recommends it as a companion to Mirren's work in Elizabeth I, but in any case comes Highly Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.