The Queen


The most amazing thing about The Queen, directed by Stephen Frears, is that Frears has taken a concept that angled sharply toward “made-for-tv movie” territory and turned it into a remarkable, insightful and subtle masterpiece of a film.
The Queen begins with Her Majesty (played perfectly by Helen Mirren) discussing politics with the man painting her portrait. The opening credits pop up as she is gazing off to the side, and then, unexpectedly, she stares fearlessly into the camera. It’s a perfect introduction to how the movie plays out: honestly, straight-forwardly, and without any sugarcoating.
When Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) is elected Prime Minister, his friendly demeanor (“call me Tony”) contrasts with the icy exterior of the Queen. Their first meeting, awkward and abrupt, hints that they have different ways of doing business. The Queen brings him down a peg by reminding him that he is her tenth PM, Winston Churchill being the first. The tables turn when Blair mourns Diana on TV as “the people’s princess.” His speechwriter (Mark Bazeley) coined the phrase, but Blair rides it to popular glory while the queen freezes out her subjects by taking refuge at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. Except for Diana’s ex-husband Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), too spineless to stand up to his mother, the family wants to continue snubbing Diana in death.
The snobby Prince Philip (James Cromwell, the only American in the cast), who worries “homosexuals” like Elton John would attend a public funeral and the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) huff that there is no precedent even to lower the flag at Buckingham Palace in Diana’s memory.
Even though the Queen insists on keeping the matter private and dignified, Blair finally persuades her to stage a full state funeral – by quoting a poll saying that Brits are so incensed that 25 percent of them want to dump the monarchy.
When the Queen finally decides that Blair is right, it’s not because her opinion of Diana has changed, but because she’s finally come to realize that she no longer has her finger on the pulse of the people she is supposed to lead. When the Queen finally emerges and goes to view the sea of flowers her subjects have left for the dead princess, and sees the cards with notes like “They didn’t deserve you,” her pain, though restrained, is evident. This is a woman who has uncomplainingly put duty to her country and her people before self for her entire life.
Underneath the surface all that lies the real story: the clash of values between elected officials versus those born to the privilege; the wealthy versus the common man; duty versus self, tradition versus change. Frears and Peter Morgan (screenwriter) focused on the Queen and the battle of wills between her and the popular Tony Blair. That way, they kept the film from turning maudlin. The clash between the modern Blair and the stalwart monarch is used here as a mirror reflecting broader societal changes, with Diana’s death as the catalyst.
Morgan’s script humanizes Queen Elizabeth II in quite a remarkable way, showing her as a real person, giving us a peek at the motivation underlying her initial reluctance to publicly acknowledge Diana’s death and life.
The screenplay is intense, focused, literate and observant, and Helen Mirren captures the Queen’s essence without ever stooping to caricature. Michael Sheen’s performance as Blair is also worth noting. Sheen nails Blair’s passion and earnest enthusiasm, and Helen McCrory also does a fine job as Blair’s wife, Cherie. James Cromwell takes on the challenge of an American playing a British royal, Prince Philip, and Alex Jennings gives a nice turn as the befuddled Charles, who actually feared, in the wake of Diana’s death, that some angry citizen might take out their grief by shooting him. Sylvia Sims nicely portrays the Queen Mother, who advises her daughter to uphold tradition rather than cave in to public sentiment. The Queen has a lot of elements that make it irresistibly regal. The script offers a well-rounded character study and the direction is flawless.

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