Dir. Stephen Frears, UK/France/Italy, 2006, 97 mins
Cast: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Sylvia Syms
Review by Richard Mellor
There were two obvious ways to greet the extraordinary outpouring of public grief, outraged tabloid headlines and, eventually, unusual reaction of the monarchy following the death of Princess Diana.
While some were persuaded to similar emotional abandon by this remarkable fanfare, for others the events fuelled only a deep cynicism – and a terminal admiration for the abilities of public relations.
The same two reactions are equally possible after watching The Queen, the latest change of tack from ever-flitting director, Stephen Frears. The film is presented as an honest interpretation of both Tony Blair and the Royal Family’s reactions to Diana’s death; but, as the title suggests, it ends up being a rather sycophantic homage to queenly adaptability.
The Queen begins with a comic scene or two; sitting for her portrait, the likeable Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren, as good as she was playing Elizabeth I) jokes with her artist how she wishes she could vote. Next thing, she is offering new PM Blair (Michael Sheen) the chance to run Parliament; the scene is a cute comedy of manners, as Tony and wife Cherie (an irritating Helen McCrory) desperately try to remember royal protocol.
Quite suddenly, Diana dies, and the film becomes a sombre, heavier drama right up to the familiar outcome. Its chief focus is the taut relationship between Blair and The Queen, as Labour’s new leader strives to convince the royals to give in to public fervour and quit Balmoral in deference to growing public demand.
That is about it – there are no subplots and the supporting characters are mostly shallow props for Mirren and Sheen to bounce off. This is ostensibly – and truly, as it’s Granada-produced – a TV movie. Yet there is one narrative urgently running below the surface. As the Windsors stayed at home and public outcry simultaneously grew, was the very future of the monarchy under threat?
An increasingly tremulous Blair certainly believes so, earnestly quoting statistics of fading support to his reactionary ruler over the phone. The Queen’s refusal to budge is attributed to her stiff traditions; she comes from a different age, when esteem for the monarchy conquered all public doubts. Finally, she comes to her senses, heads south and simultaneously modernises and saves the Royal Family.
Frears goes to great pains to reveal our Queen’s sensitive side, something rarely seen in public. The most telling moments come in Balmoral’s grounds, through a rather schmaltzy tale of an elegant stag. Happening upon the beast alone, Mirren’s Elizabeth starts to sob; the animal’s beauty perhaps reminds her of Diana. The stag’s later death triggers a new thoughtfulness, leading to the return to London.
But is this is just a well-honed exercise in royal PR? After initially seeming antiquated, the Queen comes out as something of a heroine. As Sheen’s Blair suddenly becomes completely deferential, a powerful, twinkle-eyed and appealing monarch emerges. In reality, she seemed resilient, unmoved and far too proud during that memorable week. Frears’ film seems to recall events through a rather rose-tinted lens.
A similar inbalance is found with the acting on dispaly. For while Mirren is excellent, lending poise, charisma and a droll wit to a stoic figure, and Sheen almost as good as the cloying Blair, many of the supporting performances are near-slapstick. Especially guilty are James Cromwell as a slightly demented Prince Philip and Sylvia Sims, who plays the Queen Mother like an evil godmother. Such silliness undermines both the lead performances and the serious tone Frears is attempting.
Give The Queen credit, though, for not pulling all its potential punches. Though towing a pro-monarchy line, Frears’ film does manage to boldly suggest that Elizabeth firmly dislikes her wet blanket Prime Minister. Fact or fiction, this is a brave way for an English drama to interpret the relationship between its country’s two leading figures. Keep an eye out for a smug Gordon Brown in the audience…