Director Stephen Frears’ The Queen offers an incisive and utterly persuasive glimpse behind the scenes of recent history. The title role is Elizabeth II, played by Helen Mirren, and the movie covers the week in 1997 after the unexpected death of Princess Diana in Paris. As the outpouring of public grief becomes overwhelming and worldwide, the queen is drawn into a decorous conflict with her new prime minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), over the proper response of the royal family to the passing of the divorced Diana.
We first meet the two on the day they met one another, in the wake of the overwhelming victory of Blair’s Labour Party in the May 1997 elections. Blair appears at Buckingham Palace for his courtesy call on the queen to receive her traditional “invitation” to form a government. In the car on the way, Blair is bucked up by his wife, Cherie (Helen McCrory), whose palpable disdain for royalty and all its traditions does little to ease his schoolboy nervousness. Once in the royal presence, he grows even more jittery in the face of the queen’s formal, even icy calm—she tells him that he is, after all, her 10th prime minister, and the first was Winston Churchill himself.
Four months later, the death of Diana provides both Elizabeth and Blair with an unprecedented and unanticipated crisis. The queen’s sense of propriety compels her to resist calls for a royal funeral for Diana, while Blair, more keenly attuned to public opinion, begins to sense that the queen’s rigidity could bring on a genuine crisis of public confidence in the monarchy. The situation may be unprecedented, but it’s a classic example of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object.
We all know how this will turn out, of course. In the end, the immovable object—Elizabeth herself—will not be as immovable as her antagonists think. She will in the end prove more flexible—and, truth to tell, more dignified—than her enemies expect (more so, in fact, than they could probably be themselves).
Director Frears’ eye for the telling detail is on full display here, and has never been sharper. He has a remarkable script by Peter Morgan. (Morgan also had a hand in the script for The Last King of Scotland, with its insights into the character of Idi Amin; a writer to keep an eye on, no doubt.) God only knows how much of Morgan’s behind-the-scenes stuff really happened as he shows it, but The Queen has the clarion ring of truth from first frame to last.
As we might expect, Mirren’s masterful performance drives the movie. She transcends surface impersonation; in fact, she looks nothing like Elizabeth II—in real life she’s too tall, too young and (no disrespect to Her Majesty) too sexy. And yet, whether she’s meeting with dignitaries and staff, scribbling in her diary, or muttering “Bugger it!” over a stalled vehicle on the Scottish moors, Mirren conveys an unerring sense that yes, this must be what she’s like.
A great performance from Mirren is no surprise, even though this one may be her best ever. And Sheen plays Blair much as we imagine he too must be: honest and straightforward. The movie’s surprises come in smaller, more unexpected ways: Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) comes off as sensitive and sympathetic as he confides to Blair that the royal family must adapt and “modernize” if it’s to last long into the 21st century. Cherie Blair, on the other hand, appears to be a bit of a nasty shrew, disdainful of traditions that have contributed more than she will admit to the life she lives. James Cromwell plays Prince Philip as a cantankerous stuffed shirt, and dear old Sylvia Syms is tart and crusty as the 90-something Queen Mum.
Morgan and Frears provide supporting contrasts in the form of Elizabeth’s personal secretary Robin Janvrin (Roger Allam) and Blair’s speechwriter Alastair Campbell (Mark Bazeley), each representing competing royal and populist ideals that Blair and the queen must balance and somehow reconcile.
The manner in which the two manage this provides the movie with its satisfying denouement. The Queen shows us a backstairs crisis at Buckingham Palace in a way that respects everyone and their viewpoints. In doing so, it enhances not only our respect for them, but also for the filmmakers as well.