Her Majesty's Conflict
One viewing of The Queen will reveal its obvious strengths. Stephen Frears's movie about the British Royal Family's reaction to the death of Princess Diana is a classy production, strongly supported by those pillars of a quality film: good acting and screenwriting. The extras are strong as well, from the costuming to the production design to the soundtrack. These qualities ensure the movie's distinction, but I found the uniqueness of its subject matter the most fascinating of all.
The Queen is peculiar in that it portrays still-living people who could easily weigh in with opinions on their own portrayals (and I hope they do). Its events occurred only nine years ago, when Diana was killed in the aftermath of a car chase in Paris. To create a work from such a scenario is bold on the part of Frears and his screenwriter Peter Morgan, but it's also all the more rewarding because they use the opportunity not to exploit the Royal Family nor the death of Diana, but to spotlight the depths of inner human conflict instead.
The conflict of concern here was well-publicized at the time. After Diana was killed, public sentiment for her soared, but -- in contrast -- the Royal Family, known for preferring to distance themselves from her (and glad to disown her after her recent divorce from Prince Charles), seemed to barely acknowledge the event. Tony Blair, newly elected Prime Minister at the time and fresh with new ideas for an old regime, played the middleman, ensuring that the British government did its best to show grief along with the people while trying to persuade the Royal Family to do the same, lest the PR fallout become irrecoverable. Meanwhile, Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II became the public and media's individual scapegoat for the family's insensitivity.
As events unfold in the movie, we see the trains of thought of this drama's primary players, namely Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) and Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). It becomes apparent that no one here means harm or malice -- the Queen sticks to the rules she knows, which are to approach displays of grief with a royal dignity, to treat the affair not as a death in the family (as Diana was no longer at the time), and to be calm during what her advisors referred to as the temporary madness of the people.
Blair, however, realizes the changing times and the sheer magnitude of public outpouring for Diana have no precedent, and that Her Majesty should adapt to the situation. The conflict is expressed in various shades: tradition vs. modernization, strength of will vs. ability to adapt, and, perhaps most human of all, pride vs. humility.
No stance could be viewed as wrong here, but the situation creates a tense, week-long internal struggle for the Queen as Blair continues his polite appeal to her good sense on one side, and her family, including Prince Philip (James Cromwell) and the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms), tell her to remain strong on the other, convincing her that the people will come around. But will they?
One rarely gets the chance to see such a conflict played out so effectively. Despite what one's allegiance to Princess Diana is, the viewer can't help empathizing with the Queen's dilemma. It's a common human situation played out on the largest stage with very high stakes of perception and reputation. For even though the Queen could justify her feelings with the ideas of tradition and dignity, one is never doubtful that a strong personal pride fuels her personality the most. Why and when should she cave in to public demands? When should any of us? When is it appropriate, when is it wise to allow the judgments of others to affect our own?
All credit goes to Helen Mirren for this fantastic performance that's able to relay all of these emotions and feelings. Her work is one of immense sympathy, evoking solid admiration for both her skill and her character. Best of all, it has nary a hint of dreariness, pomposity, or stiffness -- the tone of her performance, and of the movie itself, has plenty of bite and humor. For a film about death, its reaction and political and internal drama, The Queen is funny and never morose. One might say it's quite British in that regard, with Mirren leading the mood all the way.
Sheen matches Mirren with his portrayal of Blair -- his rendition also has much humor and his character arc is entertaining in how we can see his own empathy taking shape for Her Royal Majesty. The Queen doesn't have any bright lights or flights of fancy, but as an insightful, unique take on what makes us human -- the way our ultimate legacy may be how we survived balancing our individual personalities and tendencies with the needs and demands of the community around us -- it's simply marvelous. Or, shall I say, majestic.
(Released by Miramax Films and rated "PG-13" for brief strong language.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.