2006Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell
hile watching The Queen, one feels that the filmmakers always have another card up their sleeve. Chronicling a tumultuous week in the life of a government devoted to tact and image, the movie slyly withholds a complete understanding of character. These people have kingdoms to lose; they are none too eager to expose their every emotion. Whenever the narrative seems to completely unravel, The Queen reveals another dimension, complicating matters and offering new insights. With very few missteps, The Queen tells a rich, multi-faceted, and properly ambiguous story.
The efficiently coiled plot begins with the election of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). Ambitious, radical, and impossibly charismatic, Blair wants to change the face of English politics. However, the man must soon attend his first meeting as Prime Minister with the Queen of England (Helen Mirren), who is clearly not impressed by his winning personality. The Queen has dealt with several prime ministers during her long career, including, as she dryly notes, such heavy-hitters as Winston Churchill. A power struggle drenched in courtesy emerges, the future of England at stake.
These niceties end abruptly when Diana, Princess of Wales, is killed in a car crash. Blair immediately makes an eloquent speech, winning the favor of the nation. But as England succumbs to grief, popular opinion turns against the monarchy. The royal family refuses to publicly acknowledge the death of the beloved celebrity, with whom they share an ugly history. As public outrage rises, the Queen takes advice from her family, her conservative advisors, her baying people, and, most significantly, Blair. Meanwhile, the new prime minister grapples with his own surge in popularity, tempted to seize political control. Under these exceptional circumstances, gigantic personalities collide and compromise.
This conflict crystallizes in Blair, a man uniquely equipped to destroy the monarchy once and for all. He emerges as the moral center of the film, denying himself political advantage in order to preserve the reputation of the royal family (ironically, while defending the Queen, Blair gives the film’s most brutal tirade against Diana). As moving as Blair’s integrity is, The Queen does not hesitate to question his unlikely devotion. In one scene, Cherie, Blair’s wife, suggests that the crown eventually seduces every Labor Prime Minister. Having voiced these cynical implications, the movie offers a more likely thesis when Cherie convincingly argues that Tony defends the Queen because she reminds him of his mother. Blair smiles, the music swells, and The Queen gains yet another layer.
In this moment, The Queen acknowledges an empathy that transcends politics, refusing to see its titular character as anything less than a human being. Helen Mirren (in a performance that should be bound for Oscar) creates a character we immediately respect, a dignified woman with wisdom and perspective. Quietly defying our expectations, the Queen transitions from reserved, be-gowned ruler to grandmotherly, be-scarfed dog-walker. After recklessly marooning her car in a river, she phones for assistance (how typical of her spoiled class?), but then accurately explains her predicament, drawing upon her experience as a mechanic during World War II. Eager to do the right thing, the Queen struggles to live up to both her legacy and the expectations of her fickle public. In the pivotal scene of the film, in which the Queen finally makes an appearance at Buckingham Palace, The Queen reaches its crescendo. As she confronts the disapproving people she longs to emblematize, deep emotion working beneath her lined face, we instinctively wish to protect her, regardless of whether or not she deserves a kingdom.
The Queen’s vulnerability strikes deep because her people’s affections are largely arbitrary. Admittedly disconnected from the attitudes and values of the new generation, the Queen is also subject to her demanding and stupid subjects. Whenever the royal family (or even Blair) relates to the masses, a thick façade of poise and preparation robs the leaders of their humanity. The speechwriter for Tony Blair, for instance, features prominently, reminding us of the concerted effort behind Blair’s popularity. When The Queen finally makes a statement, her well-written words are forced and clipped, even emotionless. Nonetheless, the gullible people resoundingly approve of the conciliatory bones tossed their way. Meanwhile, Tony Blair, like the audience glimpses a real woman, not a sanitized personality. As are we, he is impressed by her fortitude.
The Queen is currently playing in wide release.