The Queen Review
Nine years on, it's hard to believe what happened in Britain in the wake of Diana, Princess of Wales' death on August 31st 1997 in a car crash in Paris. Over the tragic passing of a celebrity who had been a figure of scorn for years, the country descended into a state of national mourning which eclipsed everything else for a week, dominated our culture for months afterwards and is still a visible scar on our national psyche.
In that initial week, Britain all but ground to a halt as crowds poured into Central London to pay their respects. People were crying in the streets. The entrances to St James's Palace, Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace became seas of flowers. The relentless pillorying of Diana in the press was instantly forgotten and she was practically canonised. Criticism and mockery were no longer allowed. Pathe film distributors cut a joke about Charles and Di's divorce from all prints of Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery, no mean feat a few days before its release date. There was talk of renaming Heathrow Airport after Diana. The official soundtrack to our national grief was Elton John's reworking of "Candle In The Wind" but it should have been Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Oh What A Circus", the opening song from Evita.
The Queen is the first major film to deal with Diana's death. Showing the Princess of Wales only in TV footage, it focuses instead on how Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) copes with the week following the accident. When the news comes in from Paris early on Sunday morning, the Queen is holidaying with Prince Philip (James Cromwell), the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms), Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) and William and Harry at the Royal Family's Balmoral estate in Scotland. Charles wakes his boys to break the sad news and then flies off to Paris.
The Queen's official response is not to make one. She decides to stay out of the affair and remain at Balmoral. She has good reasons for this. The Spencer family has announced their wish to hold a private funeral for Diana and the Queen feels she must respect that. She also wants to stay with William and Harry to help comfort them and she wants them kept well away from the madness in the capital. Besides, she feels it wouldn't be dignified for the monarch to get involved and nor is it any of her business since Diana is no longer a royal.
Over the next few days, it becomes clear that the nation doesn't agree with her. The crowds in London want to know where their Queen is and why she hasn't come back to share their grief. ("Their grief?", splutters the Queen in amazement.) There are complaints that the flag at Buckingham Palace isn't flying at half mast, ignoring the fact that the flag only flies at all when the Queen is in residence. Polls show that the British people are unhappy with the Royals' reaction and they expect Her Majesty to return to London immediately. To do what exactly? Look sad on television? Apparently so.
New Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), just settling into power in Westminster, agrees. Surrounded by a mob of PR people feeding him up-to-the-minute market research, Blair can't believe the Queen could be so indifferent to public opinion. Doesn't she have her own PR people? He phones her at Balmoral to delicately suggest that she should change her mind. The Queen refuses and so begins a battle of wills between Her Majesty, who believes the storm will blow over if she waits it out, and the British public, who turn on the cold-hearted Royals with growing anger. In the middle sits an anxious Tony Blair, trying as ever to mediate and find a Third Way.
This astonishing true story is told in riveting fashion by writer Peter Morgan and director Stephen Frears. It's not Morgan's first attempt at recent historical drama. He wrote the TV movie The Deal, about Tony Blair's relationship with Gordon Brown - again starring Michael Sheen as Blair. Although he's obviously done a fair bit of research, how much of what happens in The Queen actually took place and how much is speculation and invention we'll never know. That doesn't change the fact that it's superb drama. If the Queen didn't say what she says to Blair in the final scene, she bloody well should have. Morgan's script is funny, provocative and surprisingly touching in parts, while Frears' direction is note-perfect. The film doesn't just entertain and engross, it makes you think and, in my case, it made me take a side with great passion.
In case you're wondering, my sympathies were entirely with the Queen. On the basis of this film, she behaved with great dignity and in return she was treated shabbily by the press, by her government and most of all by her subjects, who apparently would have preferred a touchy-feely, nineties monarch who opened her heart to Martin Bashir and cried for the cameras, like Diana did. Are we really that shallow? Were we so blinded by grief for a dead celebrity that we couldn't see the Queen's point of view?
This is a woman who, at 71 years of age in 1997, had served as monarch for 45 years. She'd spent those years acting in a certain way which she'd been brought up to believe was appropriate for a British queen. It was based on propriety and it didn't allow for public displays of grief or caving in to popular opinion. Before September 1997, few of us had a problem with this - the Queen was immensely popular - but over the course of one week, she went in our eyes from dignified and regal to cold and heartless.
Agree or disagree, the Queen was doing what she believed to be right and proper. Compare her behaviour with that of Tony Blair and his New Labour cronies. Alastair Campbell (Mark Bazeley), who comes across as quite repulsive, crows over the approval ratings Blair receives after making a speech Campbell wrote about Diana. Cherie Blair (Helen McCrory), a fabulously well-paid barrister, makes bolshy comments about how rich the royals are. Mr Blair himself ("Call me Tony!") seems concerned only with being liked. He wants the nation to like him. He wants the Queen to like him. Though he's given a few sympathetic moments, his portrayal here made me feel even more pleased that I've never voted for him.
Of course I'm treating the film as gospel and I'm bringing my own opinions and prejudices to the table. I've always had a lot of respect for the Queen, even though I think the monarchy's day is just about over, and I've never had much time for Blair or New Labour. My reaction to the film might be different from yours. I've read other, positive reviews which have stated that Blair comes off well in it, that the royals look hopelessly out of touch and even that Cherie is more sympathetically depicted than usual. The film may work like a political Rorschach test.
However you react, you have to admire the movie for inspiring strong feelings. There have been very few British movies so accomplished and so gripping in recent years and none that have tackled subject matter as thorny as this with such intelligence and maturity. It's curious that a film so sympathetic to the Queen should have been made by a director who used to be a bit of a left-wing firebrand and who made several movies attacking the traditional British establishment. This is also an extremely good looking film. Affonso Beato's cinematography in the Balmoral scenes should sell a few Scottish holidays.
Helen Mirren is reason enough to see the film by herself. She's simply magnificent. The challenges of playing a real-life personality as famous as Her Majesty are obvious but from her first moment onscreen, she is the Queen. Think of what Jamie Foxx achieved in Ray and you'll understand what Mirren does here. Michael Sheen's performance as Blair is effective in some scenes but in others hovers on the precipice of impersonation. That's also true of the other actors playing the Royal Family, with the exception of James Cromwell. He's inspired casting as the Duke of Edinburgh and he brings him splendidly to life.