Nobody knows the people of England better than she.
It did not take me long to realise that Stephen Frear’s The Queen is a delicate story of Upstairs and Downstairs relations. Here, however, the Upstairs is directly accountable to the Downstairs; Downstairs being as they are, what they want does not always seem the classy option. The Stairs themselves are therefore precariously balanced with reconciling those above and below them, all the while trying to balance their own interests.
What was once a simple and elegant metaphor for English society grew laboured in my telling, but Upstairs is the British Monarchy, Downstairs the increasingly cultureless citizens of England, and the Stairs Tony Blair’s government.
Being as this is a movie about class, it’s no surprise that it’s a classy movie. It sympathises with Queen Elizabeth II, who seems more personable than any of the limited times I’ve seen her (although she seemed quite nice when Rolf Harris painted her). The situations presented are almost entirely based on conjecture about the events of a few weeks in 1997. While they may not be strictly true, they feel genuine; these real world people have become fully realised characters for the sake of a film.
While there are some who will be offended by the idea of an author writing a situation that may have happened (and was pretty well researched), anyone else with a vague interest in the Royal Family and the death of Diana will be well served to see The Queen.
Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) welcomes Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), the first Labour prime minister in 18 years, as Prime Minister of England. Two months later, Princess Diana dies in a tunnel in Paris. The Royal Family chooses not to acknowledge the loss, equating silence with respectable mourning. As the public tide turns against the Monarchy, Blair has to try to convince the Queen that times have changed.
There can be no doubt that Princess Diana was a woman who captured the hearts of the world. As she said in one interview – featured in this movie – where she appear to be a massive pariah, she only wanted to be queen of people’s hearts, because the monarchy rejected her. One can easily understand why the Royal Family would have little love for the woman, and would want to mark her death with dignity; not, as Prince Phillip finds to his disgust, with “a parade of soap stars and homosexuals.”
The problem is that the family underestimates the mob mentality of England – a nation that had, as a whole, come to embrace tackiness in all of its forms. No longer were they known for their frigidity, but for their bad teeth, drunken loutishness and obnoxious children.
In what was presumably stock footage, mourners speak of their expectations of the monarchy, and they seem so brazen and classless in their demands. It’s hard to grasp the grief of a nation when you’ve not got a vested interest in what they’re mourning.
Rather more easy and satisfying to analyse is the reserved stance of the Queen herself. Mirren’s performance is so nuanced that she manages to make the monarch at once emotionally detached and intimately invested in the situation. Although one cannot say that she is deeply sorry for the death of Diana, beyond the obvious sadness that anyone would feel at the death of someone involved in family matters, it is plain to see that she is concerned both for the welfare of her family and that of the public.
The relationship between the Queen and Blair – for Blair is clearly the one against whom Elizabeth plays – is delicious in the brazenness on both sides and the somewhat grudging respect that they develop for each other is marvellous. With the exception of Mirren and the two young actors portraying Princes William and Harry, the majority of the cast look nothing like their real life counterparts. Sheen’s Blair grins nervously with his bottom teeth rather too much for my liking, but this sort of earnestness is precisely what the role demands (and ironically, Helen McCrory, the actress who plays Cheri Blair, looks much more glamorous than her real life counterpart; this is largely because she plays the role as a leftist republican rather than as an “air and tea drinker”).
I could not help but think that some of the dialogue between Blair and the Queen was written as foreshadowing of the current political climate in England, but that was precisely what was so wonderful about the repartee: while the Queen may be considered out of touch, she is altogether rather more perceptive than Blair. She has had decades more experience, after all.
Well acted and convincingly written, The Queen is a brilliantly conceived drama that gives the Royal Family something that Diana seems to have robbed them of: humanity. I have no staunch opinions on the monarchy one way or another, but I’ll say this: Queen Elizabeth II is a fine woman, and The Queen is a fine film.