Many reviewers of The Queen have left their personal politics about monarchism out of their pieces, and so each published viewpoint is suspiciously coloured by the possibility that they harbour some royal love and are happy to see cinema vindicate them at last, given that Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan’s The Queen is largely sympathetic to Elizabeth II while critiquing her response to Princess Diana’s death. However, I will not be so restrained. I loathe monarchism and find the British people’s reverence for the royal family unnerving and difficult to fathom. That Americans and other outsiders looking in are fascinated by them as well is even more heinous.
I state this because this will be a strangely middling review. I found The Queen a serviceable film that remains admirably close to impartiality, but am bemused as to why this film exists at all. Of all the major political stories of the last decade, why should this one be dignified with a classy cinematic examination? Even a rational, self-aware monarchist (if such a person exists) must admit that this turbulent decade has been home to far more social upheaval than Diana’s death, War on Terror or otherwise. This was one of my major grievances with The Queen, a film so embedded in real-world context that it becomes difficult to judge solely on its technical merits… hence the political clarification. I could not shake the question of relevance, and since I struggle to find any, The Queen’s rapturous reception and myriad awards is frustrating and mystifying, especially since it is functionally rather than audaciously crafted.
Beginning with Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) meeting Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) following his landslide 1997 election victory, The Queen soon jumps forward a little to chronicle the week following Diana’s fatal car accident in Paris, when Britain mourned and then raged at the House of Windsor’s lack of public response. This is a behind-the-curtain movie, as we watch Blair and wife Cherie debating the merits of the monarchy, Blair trying to negotiate with Elizabeth to appease the public mood, and the queen’s pondering of the problem during her customary holiday at Balmoral, an isolation that only compounds the problem. All sides on the issue are presented by different characters, with Prince Philip (James Cromwell) and the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) insisting that no response is perfectly appropriate – why is the public so moved anyway, they ask – and Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) advocating an engagement with the public, believing that times have greatly changed since his mother’s heyday and that an outpouring of public grief should be dignified rather than shunned. Meanwhile, Blair goes from gentle mockery of the monarchy to becoming bewitched by the queen’s stature and dedication.
Frears and Morgan certainly aren’t indulging in a royal lovefest. They have indicated their disdain for the institution, yet decided to make the film anyway. This orientation is readily apparent in the final product, and makes The Queen a great deal easier to swallow and vastly more intelligent than it could have been. Morgan researched and interviewed key players exhaustively to approximate the behind-the-scenes dealings as closely as possible, giving these scenes the densely packed enjoyment of The West Wing without the idealism. But the climactic symbol of the stag is overwrought, offering an unrealistic and unnecessary catalyst for the queen’s ultimate decision. This incident may well have taken place though, so I suppose I shouldn’t quibble, but the sequence does veer The Queen from restraint into the maudlin.
The performances are one aspect that have been rightly praised. Mirren is uncanny as Elizabeth II, impersonating but humanising her without straying from the demeanour we know so well. Her performance is clearly the result of a lot of hard work and deserves to be rewarded. Sheen is also impressive, although seeing an actor portray the very distinctive and still prominent PM is initially unnerving. But Sheen allows us to see past the tics into the keen mind that achieved the impossible. Sadly, the Blair side of things has a similarly clumsy climax as he rages at his staff for failing to sympathise with the queen’s lifelong duty-bound existence. Again, this may have happened, but it sniffs of a cinematic catharsis where a subtle hand would have been more effective.
I’m currently overseas (hence the long gap between updates) and it occurs to me now that The Queen is a perfect airplane movie. It’s a well-made drama that passes the time and still works on those tiny little screens. But this doesn’t warrant the unmitigated adoration, especially the Oscar fuzz. Once again, the entrenched critical establishment have hailed a strong but comfortable film and ignored dazzling innovation. The lack of attention for Children of Men and The Fountain, however unlikely they are as Oscar hopefuls in the current climate, makes The Queen’s success especially aggravating. It’s worth a rent, but not a place in history.