The Queen
"A few contrived moments, such as the metaphorical stag the Queen spots on her estate, only marginally detract from what is otherwise a fascinating drama on previously uncharted cinematic territory."

The Royal Family appears to have been something of a taboo subject in film. Rarely has the Queen been depicted on screen as a fleshed-out person, particularly as HRH Elizabeth II, rather than as a nameless individual or institution. Quite frankly the last time I can remember Mrs Windsor being even vaguely mentioned in a film was in Johnny English, of all things, with arch-maniac John Malkovich plotting to have himself crowned king, and even then she had no lines.

Pity really, considering the Dallas style melodrama and feuding that seems to have gone on behind the walls of Buckingham Palace in recent years. It’s high time then that a film attempted to tackle the subject, or rather the ruler of subjects, and Stephen Frears’ latest effort, The Queen, does so admirably, handling a difficult subject with taste and insight, successfully bringing a person we know so little about to life in the process.

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The setting is the aftermath of Diana’s death in 1997 (while actors are used for the Royal family, the directors are on safe ground reconstructing her death largely from TV news clips). HRH and Co. are spending their summer at Balmoral castle when the news comes in the dead of night. It’s the country’s worst kept secret that the Royals hated Diana, and few of them are grieving to any great extent – indeed, an off-screen Margaret remarks that Diana is proving to be more trouble in death even than in life – but cooped up behind rows of busby wearing guards, the royals are unaware of a momentous change that has taken place in the public consciousness.

As the few flowers placed outside the Palace become a floral sea, everyone around them, from advisors to politicians, concedes that private grieving might not satisfy the increasingly angry legions of mourners of a woman whose life was so very, very public. The struggle and drama comes from the family’s prior complete reliance on protocol and precedent (eventually they settle for the public funeral planned for the Queen Mother) and how they attempt to reconcile this with the needs of a public more vocal and aware than ever before.

Despite the black premise, however, the film is deeply funny. The private lives of the family are brought vibrantly to life, though the writers tastefully avoid bringing princes William and Harry into the script (it is, after all, a film about the death of their mother). The Queen Mother is dotty and clearly enjoys her gin, and the Duke of Edinburgh is violently, loudly old-fashioned – there’s a great nod to his ability to put his public foot in his mouth when he groans “What’s she done now?” upon hearing that something has happened to Diana. Yet it is a testament to the cast that these never become crude caricatures, and the film also elicits a lot of sympathy for the Queen and her position – as Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) points out, it’s a job she never chose.

Perhaps I haven’t sold it very well, but it’s a fascinating drama nonetheless. And it can’t be stressed enough just how fantastic Helen Mirren’s performance is as the Queen. She sounds just like the Queen does on Christmas Day, giving it the Royal We for all she’s worth. It’s not mere mimicry however; it’s a reserved and intense display that deserves praise and reward come BAFTA time. She looks almost perfect in the part too, so much so that I started to see her face on bank notes after the screening. Sheen meanwhile excellently reprises his role as Tony Blair, (he originally played him in Frears’ recent TV drama The Deal). Blair was still in the honeymoon phase of his premiership when Diana died, and his actions during the subsequent royal crisis only boosted his popularity further. Fast-forward ten years however and it barely needs to be said the tables have turned somewhat. Frears realises this all too well, and there’s some subtle humour elicited from this when the Queen warns Blair that one day he will become a figure of hate, as well as some brilliant topical one-liners referencing the current leadership crisis.

A few contrived moments, such as the metaphorical stag the Queen spots on her estate, only marginally detract from what is otherwise a fascinating drama on previously uncharted cinematic territory. The narrative is largely speculation, but watching it you can’t help but feel it’s nothing less than accurate. For someone with supposedly divine mandate, the film makes clear, the Queen is all too human.

Reviewed on: 13 Sep 2006
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The Queen packshot
The experiences of Queen Elizabeth II after the death of Princess Diana.
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Read more The Queen reviews:

Chris ****
Angus Wolfe Murray ***

Director: Stephen Frears

Writer: Peter Morgan

Starring: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Sylvia Syms, Alex Jennings, Helen McCrory, Roger Allam, Tim McMullan, Douglas Reith, Robin Soans, Lola Peploe

Year: 2006

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: UK, France, Italy

Festivals:

CFF 2007

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