Review: 10 years on, Stephen Frears’ The Queen still towers over its majestic competition

Today marks the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, which is a great excuse to revisit one of the 100+ movies and TV shows that feature a fictionalised version of the world’s most famous monarch. There’s plenty of worthwhile options to choose from, but one towers over the rest, even now, 10 years after it first hit cinemas: Stephen Frears’ acclaimed 2006 drama, The Queen – a film at least as majestic as its eponymous leading lady.

What is The Queen about?

In 1997, public affection for the Royal Family – and Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) – is plummeting, following the untimely death of Diana, Princess of Wales. It’s all their own fault, too; in a colossal case of misreading the room, the Queen; her husband Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (James Cromwell); and the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) agree that, since Diana was divorced from Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), no official response regarding her death is required.

As anyone outside the Buckingham Palace bubble could have predicted, this doesn’t sit well with the increasingly hysterical public, who demand an official expression of grief for “The People’s Princess”. With the outcry poised to boil over, 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…

Filmmaking fit for royalty

As befits a film about royalty, The Queen 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 – and he’s on top form here. As always, Morgan does a masterful job of weaving official records and insider anecdotes together with a healthy dose of speculation and dramatic license to craft a script that rings true.

This sense of verisimilitude carries over to cinematographer Affonso Beato’s visuals. Beato’s approach lends a naturalistic sensibility to the film that’s livened up by the occasionally calculated stylistic flourish, such as shooting scenes with the Royal Family on 35mm stock versus the 16mm stock used for scenes featuring Blair and his advisers.

But Frears’ most important asset in The Queen is his cast, and his greatest triumph is the performances he draws from each cast member, especially his two leads.

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. Her Oscar-winning take on Elizabeth II is a complex creation: utterly devoted to her duty, resolutely aloof and almost pathologically rigid concerning tradition.

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 once again brilliant in the role, 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 also handles Blair’s growing sense of admiration towards the Queen delicately, and their eventual meeting of the minds feels earned and authentic.

An intimate portrait of a remote monarch

But then, just about everything in The Queen feels authentic. This, together with Mirren’s tour de force performance, ensures that by the time the credits roll, you’ll come away feeling like you understand the film’s titular (and notoriously remote) monarch more intimately than before.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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