American attitudes about Britain’s royal family alternate between incredulity at their irrelevance and near lurid fascination with their unique status as members of an ancient cult. After all, the luster of our celebrities, (professional athletes, pop divas, politicians and movie stars) ebb and flow with the vagaries of their careers, but princes and princesses, (like diamonds) are forever. Especially if one’s at the very top of the monarchical heap, an exalted position now held for well over half of century by Her Royal Highness, Elizabeth, queen of England. In Stephen Frears’ slick if ultimately inconsequential new film, the director, screenwriter Peter Morgan and the inimitable Helen Mirren examine Her Majesty by peering under the skirts of the royal family during the week that separated Princess Diana’s death and her extravagantly-covered public funeral. The result is much ado about relatively little, but in the hands of this gifted trio, that little makes for a consistently imaginative and entertaining piece of imagined history.
The facts are few but well-known: the late night Parisian car crash that killed Diana and her playboy lover, the royal family’s furious disgust with the attention paid to “the people’s princess” and their suspicions about the rising star of Britain’s recently elected Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Elizabeth reacted to her former daughter-in-law’s demise with a mixture of “good riddance” and concern for her grandsons; the public with an orgy of grief. Blair saw in these quite different reactions a challenge to the institution of the country’s constitutional monarchy while the Queen believed the public should just get on with their lives and allow her family to grieve (and gloat) in a privacy she felt both (1) appropriate and (2) what “her people” demanded of their royals—dignified, imperial remoteness. But the television and print media-fed hysteria continued, providing Blair with the leverage to force Elizabeth into a public display of less-than-heartfelt support for Prince Charles’ former wife. The event marked a rare example of political clout over royal prerogative. Erosion of support for The House of Windsor was avoided, The Queen argues, but at what long-term cost?
All this would seem too much tempest for the teapot were it not for Frears’ exquisite presentation of the minutia of royal protocol and Mirren’s enchanting portrayal of Elizabeth’s annoying and yet oddly affecting personality. Mirren provides a shrewd portrait of a woman determined to do precisely what she thinks is expected of her, personifying in her rectitude all she imagined commendable about her subjects—dignity of manner, restraint in the face of tragedy and above all, proper decorum in public. The Queen suggests these actually are her personal values, which just happen to coincide with what makes the monarchy such an abiding value to England’s sense of national culture.
Imperious yet matronly, unselfconsciously blending conventional middle-class norms with rigid adherence to pompous royal procedure, Mirren’s Elizabeth is a fascinating contradiction; an upper class snob not above pontificating about the importance of her role who calls her own mother “mummie” and drives herself around the grounds of the Windsor’s Scottish estate in a battered Range Rover. Icily regal in manner and frumpish in dress, she lords it over her entire entourage, especially her supercilious husband Philip, (deliciously drawn and quartered by the always resourceful character actor James Cromwell) and Prince Charles, her wimp-ish heir apparent who’s portrayed here as someone unfit to head a family much less an entire nation.
Frears contrasts the royal family’s focus on rigid formality and the luxury of their isolated lifestyles with the plebian character of the boyishly charming Blair who calls colleagues by their first names, listens to his wife’s point of view on matters large and small and dines with his kids at the kitchen table. In doing so, the director ladles on a bit too much emphasis regarding class distinctions, (which continue to erode across Great Britain) but in doing so he raises anew an important point; just how ossified has the monarchy become in a country still clinging mightily to the conviction that its importance in the world still requires the maintenance of the visible trappings of Empire?
In a career spanning more than 3 decades, Frears, (who studied law at Cambridge) has worked both sides of the Atlantic in a range of genres ranging from comedy, (The Snapper, The Van) to thrillers (The Grifter, Dirty Pretty Things) to social commentary, (My Beautiful Launderette). He’s found both critical and artistic success directing some of the most accomplished acting talent in both England and the U.S. His sly dissection of the single American male’s “inability to commit”, (High Fidelity) ranks as one of the most observant romantic comedies of the last 20 years. Only a director so well versed in the both country’s cultures could have produced a movie about a British queen that has found such resonance with American audiences.
Mirren numerous films, (Gosford Park, The Clearing) television appearances, (Prime Suspect, Door to Door) and stage roles have made her one of the most accomplished, (and busiest) actresses of her generation. She’s constructed an Elizabeth who’s all at once fascinating, elusive and accessible; it’s a performance which will undoubtedly bring an Oscar nomination and perhaps the statuette as well. She dominates The Queen in a vehicle that gives audiences a meticulously constructed glimpse into a world of privilege as fabulously irrelevant as it is enduring.
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