A fascinating combination of documentary and drama about the reigning British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Acorn Media has released The Queen, the 2009 docudrama from Channel 4 that combines newsreel footage, filmed interviews with historians, biographers, journalists, royal insiders, palace staff and politicians, as well as fictionalized dramatizations, to illustrate five critical periods in Queen Elizabeth II's life, from her coronation in 1955, to her acceptance of Prince Charles' marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005. Five celebrated actresses portray the famously private Queen--Emilia Fox, Samantha Bond, Barbara Flynn, Susan Jameson, and Diana Quick--as the docudrama tries to put a human face on arguably the most powerful female politician in the world. Let's look very briefly at the five episodes of The Queen (most of my thoughts about the series as a whole will naturally come during the first episode's discussion).
Episode 1: Sisters
When I first heard about this project back in 2009 (it caused a bit of discussion in the British papers...as does any project that deals with their Queen), I was curious as to how the scriptwriters would get around the inherent difficulties of trying to present a supposedly "intimate" portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, when she famously never grants public access to her private thoughts and feelings. As well, how would the filmmakers get around the natural resistance a viewer might have in "seeing" a unified picture of the Queen with five different actresses portraying her throughout the show? Watching the dramatized sequences, which are models of careful, respectful speculative biography, it's clear that quite a bit of research backs up the "maybe she said or did this" framework, because none of those scenes played too far outside our expectations of the Queen's behavior, nor were they overtly contrary to the generally accepted understandings of the events being illustrated (perhaps the cattiness of her interactions with Margaret Thatcher seemed a bit waspish and over-the-top...but delightfully so). The series is scrupulously careful (to its credit) to put right up front, in a title card disclaimer for each episode, that the "drama is imagined," delineating clearly between the copious documentary footage and filmed interviews that are utilized, and the fictionalized scenes of the Queen in action. From everything that I've read, the Queen has never granted an in-depth interview to anyone during her 58-year reign, so of course, these scripted moments are informed "best-guesses." However, they seem to play as entirely plausible, showing the Queen maturing from a young 25-year-old princess who already possessed a preternaturally diligent approach to her royal duties, to a savvy, influential political player on the world stage--a feat all the more remarkable since constitutionally, she has very little "real," legal power. That's The Queen's strongest element, perhaps--showing how the Queen has tenaciously shaped and retained the power and relevancy of the concept of monarchy, particularly during periods when the British public questioned the very need of "royal family" in their lives.
As for the potential problem of synching together five different performers portraying the same historical figure in one series, I would imagine it was easier for original U.K. viewers to put that obstacle aside, since they watched these episodes one week at a time (whereas I watched them in one four-hour sitting). Still, the fact that the series makes no effort to hide its docudrama origins--indeed, it highlights those conventions by including a narrator (Steven Mackintosh), documentary footage and "talking head" interviews--only helps to suspend any viewer notion of a unified fictional continuity. Each episode is a separate little documentary, if you will, with speculative, dramatized scenes included for emphasis and illumination, so...why not utilize different actresses for different periods in the Queen's life? Of course, it also helps that each actress here turns in a memorable take on Elizabeth; one misguided turn would have been enough for a viewer to focus on the wisdom of using multiple actors for the role.
The first episode of The Queen, Sisters, is quite good at painting a picture of an England that has almost totally vanished. Opening with a statistic that many today would find hard to believe--a full 1/3 of the populace felt the royals were chosen by God to rule them--the England of 1955 is still a world where the royals are united with the government, with the Church of England, and with the mainstream press in presenting a unified front against the inevitable social changes that were coming to Britain. Presented with the fact that beloved sister Princess Margaret (Katie McGrath) is in love with a divorced man 16 years her senior, Elizabeth must walk a fine line between not offending the sensibilities of the establishment and her loyal, like-minded subjects, and a rising number of people who don't see divorce as a mortal sin. Sisters shows a young queen who seeks initial guidance from her deceased father's advisor, Alan 'Tommy' Lascelles (Simon Williams), but who graduates into a skilled, behind-the-scenes maneuverer who subtly guilts her younger sister into choosing duty over self--a motto of the Queen's that has ruled her life (certainly to the betterment of the monarchy...but perhaps not as successfully with her private life). You may question what that decision did to Princess Margaret's life (some have suggested it ruined the troubled princess, losing the love of her life), but you can't help but admire the Queen's steely determination to present an idealized vision of moral forthrightness for her subjects to emulate, while maintaining the legitimacy of the monarchy in the face of any perceived threats.
Episode 2: Us and Them
Us and Them covers the tumultuous years of 1969 to 1974, when it looked to many that the House of Windsor would fade into irrelevancy. Suffering from a horrific miners' strike in 1972 that pushed England into almost Third World status (pay weeks were reduced to three days, and electricity was cut off at night across the country), many Britishers felt that the royal family was an expense it could no longer afford...just as the family inconveniently asked for more public money to function (the Queen made 1,000,000£s a year...while miners made 25£ a week). In an effort to change with the times, the Queen allowed television cameras to document the royals' life--a deeply ironic move that not only brought the Windsors up-to-date with the increasingly celebrity-obsessed public (a public that would use the increased royal exposure to minutely criticize the Windsors), but one that erased the final vestiges of untouchability and invincibility that had inoculated the royals from a society that was rapidly evolving away from them. This episode is quite good at showing the increasingly thin line that the Windsors had to walk in order to stay within the good graces of a sometimes suspicious, hostile public. Finding ironic support from Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson (Philip Jackson), whose cabinet was full of rabid Socialists who wanted to do away entirely with the monarchy, the Queen increasingly sees that despite her largely ceremonial powers, she can still fall back on tradition (the popular fairy-tale marriage of Princess Anne, played by Abby Ford) and public sentiment (the public's horror at Princess Anne's attempted kidnapping, which is rendered here in terrifying matter-of-factness), to keep the monarchy a viable institution. An excellent, suspenseful episode.
Episode 3: The Rivals
Deliciously bitchy and surprisingly suspenseful as we wonder who will prevail in this battle of wills, The Rivals illustrates the profound differences between the Queen and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Lesley Manville), not only in terms of politics (Thatcher is shown dictating, albeit grovelingly, to the Queen--a complete reversal of protocol), but also, perhaps, in terms of class (the Queen seems all too ready to mention Thatcher's more-humble origins). The tabloid fascination with the royals that spread like cancer during the 80s is also a key factor in this entertaining, satisfying entry, showing the growing distance between the mainstream press of the 1950s that supported the Queen's moral disapproval of her sister's affair, and the grotty tabs of the 80s who would soon begin to feed on the Windsors like jackals. You can take the portrayal of Thatcher here with a grain of salt, I suppose (she seems to be portrayed in most British films and TV with the same kind of unmitigated scorn once reserved for Ronald Reagan when he was in office). The director and screenwriter of The Rivals makes a point of comparing the compassionate Queen, crying over TV footage of apartheid violence, with a following shot of Thatcher laughing at a TV sitcom. Did that happen in real life the way it's portrayed here? I doubt it (but then I'm not privy to the private sources that supposedly helped inform the scripts), but it's clear that there's a decided bias against Thatcher, exaggerated to almost farcical level (she's shown stumbling and fumbling, too), which plays slightly out-of-whack with the other episodes. Still, the catty dialogue is quite fun, as we see the two wary professional politicians circle each other, trying to get in their licks. Easily the most entertaining entry here.
Episode 4: The Enemy Within
These last two episodes of The Queen will probably be the most accessible for American audiences, because of the mythology of Prince Charles (Paul Rhys) and Princess Diana (Emily Hamilton) that has been so firmly rooted in our own pop culture. Refreshingly, The Enemy Within doesn't pull any punches in showing what a manipulative little schemer Diana was when it came to leading the tabloid press around by the nose--a view of Diana that never took hold over here in the States, where until recently, due to the inevitable ravages of time where even the most famous name slips from public consciousness, she was viewed as a veritable saint. And quite rightly, Charles isn't exactly shown in a good light, either--infidelity and disdain for one's newlywed wife could lead to aberrant behavior, one might surmise. Indeed, only the Queen comes away relatively unscathed in behavoir during this time, enduring a terrible year where her childrens' marriages broke up, Windsor Castle almost burned to the ground, and the public flipped out when given the bill for restoration. Even an offer to finally pay personal income tax backfired on the Queen when it was seen as a bone thrown to the masses. Only her direct appeal to the public for some peace for her family, in a surprisingly emotional, personal message at Christmastime, seemed to stem the tide of ill-will that was increasingly directed at the royal family--an irony not lost on royal observers who saw the Queen finally acquiescing to more modern notions of self-revelation. Still, The Enemy Within is careful to show the unbending will of the Queen to put duty to her royal position before anything else, even her children, a situation that may go a long way towards explaining the dysfunctionality of her children's subsequent relationships. It's a depressing episode, frankly, illustrating an unhappy time in the royals' lives.
Episode 5: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Camilla?
A fascinating look at a time when the Windsors were employing spin doctors and pollsters and marketing experts to battle each other in the tabloids, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Camilla? illustrates the marked distance England had traveled in the fifty years since Elizabeth took the throne. With a public, still mourning the death of their beloved Princess Diana, vehemently opposed to the pairing of Prince Charles (Martin Turner) and the paramour he cheated with on Diana (Joanna Van Gyseghem as Camilla), the Queen feels secure in utterly ignoring their relationship. But eventually, due in no small part to Charles' savvy retention of a master spin doctor, Mark Bollard (Rick Bacon), the public turns around and accepts that their future king should be happy with his new/old love, putting the Queen, the head of the Church of England, in the awkward position of being officially "for" the couple living out of wedlock. A hopeful ending for the series, with the Queen coming around to accepting--at least officially--the marriage, this episode doesn't take the easy route by ending it there; a funny (and telling) tag is tacked on at the end, where the Queen decrees a new Order of Precedence...putting the newly-married Camilla further down the favored list.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.