The Queen Review
Receiving acclaim and Academy recognition for Helen Mirren's terrific performance, Stephen Frears' The Queen comes to Blu-ray positively riding on a royal wave of serious recommendation from seemingly everyone. Hardly my normal cup of tea, I have to confess that I had several trepidations before settling down to watch this. It's not that I have anything against the Royals - I don't, as it happens - but I remember the media saturation surrounding Diana's death all too vividly, when you simply couldn't find a channel on TV that wasn't covering it morning, noon and all through the night, or glance at a newspaper (I don't even read the damn things unless there's a movie supplement in them, but they seemed to surround me at the time) without seeing another sensational headline regarding the incident and the Royal furore. So, the thought of viewing a movie set rigidly against this backdrop was something that I didn't exactly relish.
But quality always shines through, no matter what the subject matter is. And, if a film about a situation that literally bored me to tears for the weeks and months that it dominated the world can then turn around and actually do the unthinkable and hold someone like me spellbound for a couple of hours, then that really is a special kind of power.
It isn't hard to see why Frears and writer Peter Morgan chose to tell this story. Despite honing-in on just one particular, if admittedly spectacular, event in the life of a longstanding monarch, the manner in which the Queen and her family conducted themselves during this period of intense media scrutiny and almost global mourning is crucial to understanding just how such an ancient establishment as a national sovereignty can, or even should, exist in today's society. Intrinsically, the film polarizes the views of both sides of the debate like no other set of circumstances in recent history, bringing the weird traditional values that the monarchy adheres to, and that the modern population often struggle to comprehend, into sharp and emphatic relief. I have never really had any interest in the Royal Family and I have certainly never read any of the numerous tomes that keep on clogging up the bookshelves in the local WH Smiths or Waterstones from insiders purporting to either shame or praise the Blue-bloods. So, in essence, watching this film is perhaps the closest I have ever come to “getting-to-know” what must be one of the most bizarre families in the world today. But this journey of discovery was extremely worthwhile.
“What was all that about?”
“I don't know. It's probably Diana. It's always about Diana.”
Set entirely around the tragic crash and death of Diana and Dodi Fayed - apart from a humorous little introduction when the newly appointed Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) first meets the Queen - the story takes in the hours, days and weeks in which a nation grieved and a figurehead struggled to find the correct and proper course of action to take so as not to lose the respect of her subjects, whilst still conducting her affairs in the only way she knew how. To the film's credit, what could have been over-wordy, remorselessly wallowing and, yes, incredibly boring (unless you're a Royal-spotter), the scenario is played with utterly captivating precision, incredible characterisation and performances, and dialogue that is intriguing, thought-provoking and, often, quite hilarious. That the cast, and director Frears, find the funny side to all this serious and painful stuff is an ace up The Queen's sleeve. Maybe because a lot of the audience expected it, and maybe because they really are like this in real life, the Royals and the Blairs can often come across exactly like one of those numerous send-ups that virtually every impressionist and sketch-show dutifully trots out. The Queen Mother (played by Sylvia Syms) nabs practically all the best lines, taking the sting out of nearly every situation with withering put-downs and wry observations. Prince Philip (the great James Cromwell from Babe and LA Confidential) is as wonderfully tactless as the press likes to paint, finding solace from the mass misery plaguing the palace by scampering over the hills of Balmoral trying to blast the fourteen point antlers from a glorious stag he has seen and cursing the day that Charlie ever brought the shy young Diana Spencer home with him. Prince Charles, himself, played here by Alex Jennings, is curiously the most human of the Royal cast. He is the one who sides with fledging PM Blair to win favour with the public, though most of his acts of compassion are revealed to be borne out of a paranoid desire for self-preservation. Check out his nervous reaction to the sound of a motorcycle backfiring and that time-honoured hand-gesture that puts in a couple of fondly-familiar appearances. Even Mirren's Queen, herself, is not above the odd witty aside, though her best guard-down interlude would have to be the notorious “Bugger it!” she lets slip when her Landrover stalls in a highland river.
“If there is a photographer out there ... he can be the first kill.”
But the film revolves primarily around two characters - Her Royal Highness, obviously, and then Sheen's pitch-perfect PM. Both are astoundingly accurate in their portrayals. Neither ham it up, which would have been so easy to do and so difficult a trap for lesser actors to avoid. I've long admired both performers. Sheen was easily the best the thing in Underworld, unless you count Kate Beckinsale's PVC catsuit, and his turn in the otherwise lacklustre The Four Feathers opposite Heath Ledger was the best thing in it, and, of course, Helen Mirren has brought excellence to literally everything she has ever been in, from The Long Good Friday and Excalibur to Prime Suspect, Gosford Park and Calendar Girls. And I've always had a crush on her, which is especially disconcerting considering that I've just been ogling her as, of all things, our own Queen! Licking a stamp will never be the same again! But the ongoing relationship between these two characters throughout the crisis is, quite rightly, what the story hinges upon most of all. Although politics doesn't really play a part in the proceedings, moral wrangling and a battle of the most tactful sort are vital to reaching a compromise between the two. There are many telephone conversations between them, and only two physical meetings, but their troubled, and somewhat enforced bond is the glue that holds the film together. Although the Queen barely tolerates her PM for most of the time, he practically becomes a lone crusader to fight her cause during her dubious absence from the public limelight, whilst simultaneously attempting to coerce possibly the most stalwart and indomitable spirit on the planet to his way of thinking, if only to save herself from the pitfalls of her own doctrine. But the middle ground in any situation is always treacherous. It is surprising just how suspenseful some of these scenes can be. Just the matter of having a flag at half-mast, for instance, to show respect for Diana's death becomes a bitter struggle for common-sense and dignity made all the more incomprehensible for the Royals simply because they don't actually have a flag flying above the palace when the Queen isn't actually in residence. Well, apparently not the right sort, at any rate. And getting the Queen and her kith and kin to return to London and face the people is a task of almost Herculean proportions. But the point is made that no-one is actually hiding away from the world and Mirren's icy-but-vulnerable Monarch establishes, quite credibly, that their mourning should not be done in the public gaze.
“Sleeping in the streets and pulling out their hair for someone they didn't even know. And they think we're weird!”
Helen Mirren's work here is phenomenal and thoroughly deserving of her Oscar. And I had so wanted to slate another Oscar-winner after the tripe that is The Departed claimed Scorcese's elusive statuette! Her deportment, demeanour and reined-in emotions are staggeringly captivating to watch. The physical transformation is enormously impressive, although it is still obvious, to me at least, that this Queen has got sexier legs than usual. But just look into those steely blue eyes and listen to that scalpel voice cutting through all the plaintiff pleasantries that continually buffet her, neatly eviscerating the charade that paints the world around her. Mirren and screenwriter Morgan's Queen is depicted as a practical woman who is effortlessly at home in the wilds of Scotland and far more at ease with the rough and ready staff at the estates than she is with the pontificating politicians and press-pundits that dog her every move and decision - or lack of them. When the ice breaks however, Mirren is able to convey a woman burdened with an almost unbelievable responsibility, and one who possesses a heart and soul that are just as fragile as anybody else's but has to find a completely isolated and windswept Highland valley before she can finally lower her noble guard and vent her frustrations and her grief. The little subplot involving the fourteen-point stag becomes a beautifully symbolic and painfully sad metaphor for the loss that a nation is feeling, and it is here that we finally get to meet the real Queen beneath the regal façade. The theme of freedom, salvation and hope becoming sacrificed is not at all out of context within the greater story, and the little trip that she makes to a rival estate becomes almost a pilgrimage, setting in motion the catalyst that will bring reason back to the Queen's own fortressed anguish ... far more so than anything that Tony Blair or the viciously sniping press can say.
“At the end of the day, all Labour Prime Ministers go ga-ga for the Queen.”
Sheen finds the mannerisms of Tony Blair with astonishing ease. The hand-gestures, the expressions, the eager-to-please painted on smile, the speech - it is perfect. He also makes Blair very likeable, often the only person involved who can see both sides of the argument and play devil's advocate when the need arises, as it does quite regularly in his dealings with the Royal Family. He affects the charm and vitality that made Blair so popular (once) and also maintains the incisive mind at work behind all that forelock-touching to create a presence that is, at once, a servant and a master. It is clever stuff and Sheen's resonance in the role permeates much of the movie, a foil to Mirren's regal position that ends up being a rock she will never confess to having clung to. Tony's home-life doesn't have quite the same intensity as the other Family in the tale, but it is the righteous payback that he dishes out to one of his trusted inner-circle that makes his turbulent and “rock-and-a-hard-place” early days in office so satisfying.
It is also worth mentioning that there is very able support from almost everyone else in the cast. From Roger (V For Vendetta) Allam's trusted Royal Aid Robert Janvarin, to Helen McRory's acidic Cherie Blair. Attempts have obviously been made to make everyone look, at least a little bit, like the person they are playing. But the important thing is that, once you have gotten past the sniggering stage during the first few minutes, once you've met all the main players that is, you will forget the whole impersonation angle and focus purely on what is a truly remarkable story. I still find it a little odd that one person's life can be brought into crystalline clarity and defined by something that took place in only a few weeks out of a reign of over fifty years, but the simple truth is that it took this public/Royal dispute to throw the necessary light over the class gulf separating us and them to finally gain some mutual understanding. As I said earlier, I know next to nothing about the Royal Family, but even I can appreciate the level of sacrifice that they must have made in order to bridge that gap, however tenuously they may have anchored it. Stephen Frears' film is a splendid depiction of how it may all have been achieved. Forget the politics, forget the conspiracies. These may not be normal people as we understand the term, but theirs is a story of wild characters and a virtually insurmountable set of traditions that, alone, have the power to undermine and destroy them in the eyes of the public, but will also destroy them from the inside, if they, themselves, break them.
“Charles ... Charles, use the Royal Flight. There's always one on standby ... in case I kick the bucket.”
The Queen Mum tells it like it is.
Another unexpectedly great ingredient to the mix is the score by Alexandre Desplat. His music is thoughtful and intelligent, ominous at times and melancholy at others, but always shifting and involving, lending the film an impulsive and irresistible drive. As the tension escalates and the moods shift, his cues veer and cajole, edging the seriousness and scale of the events with occasionally playful, almost fantastical chords and melodies. I have a couple of his film scores on CD, most notably the atmospheric Hostage, but I didn't anticipate being so enthralled by his work for this film. The cue signifying the date with destiny that Diana is about to make during that fateful flight from the paparazzi is absolutely terrific, and the sweeping lilt of isolation that emotions up at Balmoral evoke linger in the mind like echoes. So that'll be another CD to add to the collection. Blimey, I'll be buying those Royal books, yet!
Gaff-lovers, please take note. Watch the scene when the Queen gets her four-wheel drive stuck in the river. When she gets out of the vehicle to investigate her un-Queenly dilemma, you can clearly see the face of one of the film crew reflected in the window of the driver's door for a second as she opens it. Oops, your Majesty.
Curiously, the film ends as though it is the beginning of an ongoing series - the Tony/HRH franchise - light, optimistic and welcoming of new adventures. And, to be honest, even though such a concept would, indeed, be a strange one, I, at the very least, would actually like to see more of this dramatic double-act. Ideas for a spin-off, anyone?
For once, I agree wholeheartedly with the critics and the Academy, The Queen is superb and comes very highly recommended.