I have to take something back. The other day, I proclaimed that Kevin MacDonald’s The Last King of Scotland was the best English-language film of the year. After seeing Stephen Frears’ The Queen, however, I have to reconsider that remark.
Penned by Peter Morgan (one of the screenwriters, actually, behind The Last King), The Queen examines the crisis the British monarchy faced after the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Tony Blair had just ended 18 years of Tory rule by sweeping to power in a landslide election victory that promised to modernize a stodgy old Britain. Blair, like Diana, understood how to play the media; he knew what the public demanded of public figures. Weathered old Queen Elizabeth II, however, wasn’t so lucky. She came from a generation that prized the stiff upper lip above the public tear. And in the wake of Diana’s death, camped out at Balmoral with Charles and the children, she can’t begin to understand the huge crowds camped out in front of Buckingham Palace—or how much they seem to despise her desire for privacy.
The heart of Frears’ film is the relationship between Elizabeth (Helen Mirren and Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). The modernizing PM who declares Diana “The People’s Princess” gradually begins to feel for the crusty Queen, essentially becoming the royal’s media coach. He convinces her to make public appearances she finds unsuitable, all in the name of staving off anti-monarchist sentiment.
The Queen is equal parts irreverent satire and historical snapshot, much in the tradition of Mike Nichols’ Primary Colors. The film is at its best when delving into Elizabeth’s psyche. While revealing the unsentimental figure behind the pomp and authorized royal portraits, it does so in such a way that we feel much as Blair does, that Elizabeth is a woman of great dignity and character. Yes, she represents an antiquated institution that exists more as a prop of English tourism than a real political force, and, yes, she does have a pretty splendid life most of the time. But the Queen is one hell of a tough cookie, one who has been forced to adapt to rapid and indeed shocking societal change. This is, after all, a woman who was raised to believe she was God’s representative to the Commonwealth, but who will die in a world that sees the monarchy as little more than an enjoyable piece of theatre.
Helen Mirren’s performance in the role of Elizabeth is remarkable. Like Morgan’s script, her performance is void of sentimentality; her Queen is wholly and painfully exposed. Whether she’s taking tea or banging about her Scottish estate in a Land Rover, Elizabeth is someone who has allowed whatever personal feelings she has ever possessed to be subsumed by her post. When she is finally forced to appear publicly at the Buckingham Palace doors to read the cards left by mourners (cards that suggest a deep antipathy to all that she stands for), we feel deeply for her.
As a portrait of a brief and entirely bonkers time in British history—they thought Blair was a saviour, for God’s sake!—and a meditation on the modern monarchy and the demands of celebrity culture, The Queen is a remarkable piece of work. While it’s doubtful that the film will receive the Oscar attention it deserves, it would be a crime if Mirren doesn’t receive her own acting crown.
The Queen is now playing at the Cumberland (159 Cumberland St., 416-646-0444).