The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England
by Antonia Fraser
The Queen of England didn't much like Princess Diana. Who knows exactly why. Too flighty, too glamourous, too popular, too uncontainable, too much international adoration, too much of a threat to her unalterable concept of royal tradition. Altogether, too much for a control freak. And, the attitude she had developed toward her superstar ex-daughter-in-law carried through to her behavior during the period of mourning following Diana's death. She was so silent and unresponsive in any public way that growing popular disgust threatened the crown itself. This is that story, from inside the castle and the Prime Minister's office to the streets of London.
Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) had just won the election and he and his wife Cherie's (feisty Helen McCrory) first meeting with Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) had barely taken place when the terrible accident in the French tunnel took the life of one of the most adored figures in public life. Flowers piled high on castle grounds and elsewhere; the funeral and services had to be planned; the casket had to be returned home. People everywhere choked down tears, or didn't. And, through all this, the royal family tried its damndest to carry on as usual. For the boys, don't you know.
The "protection of the boys" became the Queen's mantra to avoid having Diana's death affect her comforts or alter the family's routines. Prince Philip (James Cromwell) who shared her attitude, took the boys stalking (hunting) for a 14-point buck in order to distract them from the realities of a mother's loss. Headlines expressing a growing condemnation for the royal silence were to be hidden from their eyes. Private thing. Family matter.
The enormity of the public response and the Queen's continued insistence that Diana was no longer a royal when she died and doesn't therefore merit special considerations evolved into questioning the monarchy itself, with more and more Brits on the street asking "what do we need it for?"
The danger this poses is not lost on Blair and he does his best to bring his monarch out of seclusion at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. He acts as a Prime Minister should, advising, almost pleading, gently urging the lady to come to Buckingham House in London, fly a flag at half staff, and publically acknowledge the death of someone so widely and profoundly being mourned on the world stage. Diana belonged to everyone and the people of Britain wanted the Queen to say as much.
Director Stephen Frears unsparingly re-creates British haughtiness to strip away the premises that rule behind castle doors. He squeezes out extraordinary irony and humor in nearly every scene, which managed to soften the personal grief I've always felt over Diana's death that the film caused to resurface.
The accuracy of the portrayal recounts the public and private events with a documentary chronology, supported in its accuracy with the interweaving of contemporary headlines in the British press and scandalizing every step of what was very close to irretrievable disaster. For this unprotective exposure of royal elitism, selfish miscalculation and evolution toward sensibility, in lieu of natural awareness, Frears proves himself the man for the job. I take back everything I said about him for his very unbrilliant "Mrs Henderson Presents" and his delirium inducing, "The Deal." Instead, he has restored the regard I originally had for his storytelling incisiveness when I saw the exemplary "Dirty Pretty Things."
But, now, a rich part of the adulation I expect to be coming for this film flows from the talent force that is Ms Mirren. It is almost laughable how she so smoothly and competently renders her Queen--for as much amusement at her dowdiness and impenetrable aloofness as for a sly condemnation of those characteristics. There's more loving respect contained in the portrayal than vindictiveness over shortcomings. The inner transformation she subtly conveys when the 14-point buck everyone is so keen on taking down reveals his majesty with an astonishingly personal audience. The resulting moment of evolution in her awareness is worth some reflection.
There are times in the film when you feel stuffy suffocation. Helen McCrorie, provides the ocassional stimulus to the corked up atmosphere with some plain talk, a contrast against Cromwell's staunch superiority, Sylvia Sims' Queen Mother bubble of snobbery and Alex Jennings' evocation of the ever striving Prince Charles, a man we all know but don't love, the man whose taste in women is as incomprehensible today as it ever was.
All roles are consistently competent, especially considering Frear's astuteness in casting actors whose physical appearances suggest the real people behind the portrayals. Her majesty is in good company.
~~ Jules Brenner
The Making of The Queen Featurette ~ Commentary by director, writer and British historian.