Movie review by Greg Carlson
Stephen Frears’ “The Queen” dramatizes the short span of time between the surreal death of Princess Diana and the even more surreal outpouring of grief that culminated in her memorable funeral. Perfectly blending documentary footage with the performances of a circle of thespians more than up to the task of playing familiar public figures, “The Queen” offers viewers a delicious, if fancifully speculative, glimpse behind the royal curtain. The movie principally toggles between freshly elected PM Tony Blair’s adroit handling of the crisis and the seemingly brittle stoicism offered by Queen Elizabeth and her kin.
The screenplay, by Peter Morgan, is almost entirely sharp, clever, and engrossing. What at first seems like a simple struggle of wills between tradition and modernization blossoms into a thoughtful examination of the meaning of public service, as both Blair and Elizabeth learn a great deal from each other over the course of the ordeal. Frears bookends the movie with a pair of face to face meetings between the two characters, interspersing the remainder of the running time with a handful of exquisitely strained telephone exchanges. Just when it seems that Blair might be spinning opinion away from the royal family in his own favor, he demonstrates an almost uncanny level of sympathy for Elizabeth and her exasperating behavior following Diana’s death.
As Elizabeth, Helen Mirren delivers a top-notch performance. Smoothly avoiding the traps of playing a well-known person merely as a satirical caricature, Mirren manages to strike a perfect balance between the monarch’s icy remove and her genuine belief that she has been called upon by God to serve the people of her country. Because we are allowed to spend so much time with the ruler and her family behind closed doors, Mirren takes advantage of the terrific opportunity to humanize the iconic figure. Who would have imagined the sight of Elizabeth piloting an SUV over the bumpy roads of her Balmoral Castle estate in search of the hunting party made up of her husband, son, and grandsons?
Beyond the queen, the other members of the House of Windsor are depicted in less flattering terms. Elizabeth’s consort, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is played by American James Cromwell as a nasty, elitist snob. Son Charles (Alex Jennings) fares better than his father, calling for, and sometimes receiving, all kinds of disruptions to protocol during the planning of Diana’s memorial. The Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) provides the lion’s share of comic relief, frowning with displeasure that the funeral arrangements she so carefully designed for herself might be appropriated for Diana.
Fans of political drama should be delighted with the juicy, imaginatively conjured hustle and bustle that attends life with her majesty, as a great deal of attention is paid to the minutiae of how one is supposed to interact with the queen. The real source footage, which includes several snippets of interviews with Diana herself, recalls the young woman’s magnetism and grace, making it that much easier to understand Elizabeth’s unspoken jealousy at Diana’s immense popularity.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/19/07.