If you’re living in the UK, chances are pretty slim that you weren’t already aware that today marks the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II.
Whether you’re a fanatical monarchist or a raging abolitionist, one thing we can all agree on is that reaching the big nine-oh is an impressive knock, especially when you’re still yet to retire after over 60 years on the job.
In honour of Her Majesty’s latest personal milestone, let’s take a look back at Stephen Frears’ acclaimed 2006 drama, The Queen.
After the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, on 31 August 1997, public affection for the Royal Family – and Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) – is plummeting.
The Queen, her husband Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (James Cromwell) and the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) are all of the opinion that, as Diana was divorced from Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), no official response regarding her untimely demise is required.
This doesn’t sit well at all with the increasingly hysterical general populace, who feel that an official expression of grief for “The People’s Princess” is warranted. As the outcry continues to swell, newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) urges the Queen to take radical action and break from established tradition, or face the possible downfall of the entire monarchy…
As befits a film about royalty, The Queen really is a gold-standard example of filmmaking.
Screenwriter Peter Morgan has made a name for himself writing historical dramas with a political bent – most famously Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland and several telemovies about Blair’s career (made with Frears) – and he’s on top form here.
As with his other work, Morgan does a masterful job of weaving official records and insider anecdotes together – along with a healthy dose of speculation and dramatic license – to craft a script that rings true, even for all its many fabrications.
This sense of verisimilitude carries over to the work by cinematographer Affonso Beato, who brings a naturalistic sensibility to the look of the film, even as he and Frears employ minor stylistic flourishes. This includes using 35mm stock to shoot scenes featuring the Royal Family and 16mm for those featuring Blair and his advises, in a subtle nod to the different arenas the two groups operate in.
But Frears’ most important asset is his cast, and his greatest triumph is the performances he draws from each cast member, especially his two leads.
Indeed, while The Queen is filled with several outstanding turns, the film ultimately belongs to Mirren and Sheen.
For her part, Mirren doesn’t so much play the Queen as embody her. True, the physical resemblance isn’t quite 100 percent accurate, but the mannerisms and voice are both spot-on, and the regal presence she exudes is uncanny.
It’s said that during shooting, the crew soon began interacting with Mirren as if she actually were the monarch, and it’s not hard to see why.
Her Oscar-winning take on Elizabeth II is a complex creation: utterly devoted to her duty, resolutely aloof and almost pathologically rigid concerning tradition. She is also (in her way) a dutiful wife and protective matriach.
Either Frears or Morgan once said – and if I could find the quote/source, I’d share it – that they were making a film about an emotionally remote woman, and yet the brilliance of Mirren is that she is still able to find the humanity (and likeability) in such a person.
On the other side of the equation, Sheen returns to the role of Blair having already filled the former PM’s shoes for Frears and Morgan in The Deal.
He is brilliant in the role once again, offering up his most flattering portrayal of the former PM, at a time when his popularity was at an all time high – and, some would argue, when his moral and political slate was still untarnished.
Sheen skilfully manages Blair’s transformation from a man nervous around a sovereign whose role in modern society he’s not even sure of, to someone who is comfortable in her presence and convinced of the value of the institution she represents.
Blair’s growing sense of admiration towards the Queen is handled delicately by Sheen, so much so that his later efforts to save Elizabeth II and the rest of her family “from themselves” come across as genuine concern for a respected professional acquaintance, and not just big screen “feel good” fodder.
More importantly, it’s the relationship between these two – the elected leader vs hereditary head of state, the progressive politician vs traditionalist ruler – that forms the crux of the film, particularly given how so many of themes that underscore proceedings stem from it.
Look out! Spoilers!
Throughout the film, Blair – himself the benefactor of the modernist “New Labour” movement – urges the Queen to modernise her approach to dealing with her subjects, and it soon becomes apparent that should she choose not to, she risks becoming irrelevant, or even being deposed via referendum.
Despite fears he may be right, the Queen rejects these proposals, along with suggestions that she make a forced statement of mourning over Diana’s death in order to satiate the demanding public.
This all comes to a head in the scene where she encounters a stag in the wilds of Balmoral.
Moments before, the Queen had broken into tears over the current political and social pressure confronting her, in a moment of utter vulnerability – the only time we ever see her majestic facade totally crack. Upon seeing the stag – which is on the run from nearby gunfire – the Queen shares a moment of silent empathy with the creature, recognising in the animal a kindred spirit also potentially marked for extinction, so much like herself.
She also gains an insight into the life of her former daughter-in-law, who was hunted all her adult life by the tabloids, until it eventually killed her.
It’s this realisation that crystallises for the Queen the need to adapt or be wiped out, and grants her the emotional understanding she needs to embrace the process of grieving for a woman about whom her feelings were, at best, mixed.
That she acts upon Blair’s advice – in effect bowing to the court of public opinion – touches upon the film’s other major concern: the power of popular perception and the media.
Blair and PR mastermind Alastair Campbell virtually invented spin in modern British politics, and in this regard at least he’s shown to be far more experienced than the Queen, who proves herself totally out of touch with a media-driven public disinterested in the old “stiff upper lip” than it is in sensationalism.
Fittingly, even though Blair becomes the apparent “saviour of the monarchy” thanks to his efforts to help the Queen turn the tide of public opinion, the film ends by addressing the fickleness of public opinion, as well.
Having managed to regain some of her social favour, the Queen foreshadows Blair’s eventual loss of his, when she warns:
“…you saw all those headlines and you thought: ‘One day that might happen to me’…and it will, Mr. Blair. Quite suddenly and without warning…”
It’s a sharp and knowing note to close the movie on, and a nice reminder that, media-savvy or not, Her Majesty is one shrewd lady.
The spoilers! They’re…they’re gone!
The Queen is a great movie. Despite how much of the film is the product of conjecture, inference or just outright imagination, there’s an undeniable sense of authenticity about it.
Thanks to this, and a stellar performance from Mirren, by the time the credits roll, you’ll come away with the impression that you know the UK’s longest-serving monarch on a far more intimate level than you ever thought possible.
Oh, and before I wrap up this review, let me close by saying, “Happy birthday, Queen!”