The Queen is more fun than any movie about the violent death of a 36-year-old woman has a right to be. It's also as exotic an English-language picture as the season is likely to bring.
Directed by Stephen Frears from Peter Morgan's script, The Queen is set in the peculiar bestiary that is Britain's royal family during the traumatic week between Diana Spencer's fatal car crash and the state funeral that the British public forced into existence. The film's theme is the monarchy in the age of mechanical reproduction. It opens by boldly quoting Shakespeare (“uneasy lies the head … “) and intimating a droll disdain for democracy by Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) in the face of “modernizer” Tony Blair's 1997 landslide.
The new PM (lookalike Michael Sheen) bumbles through a rote royal meeting, then faces his first crisis some months later with Di's death. He grasps the implications, but her majesty's bedchamber is barely rumpled by the news. “Charles, isn't this awful?” Elizabeth asks her son, before denying him the use of the royal jet to fly to Paris to recover his ex-wife's body. Summering at Balmoral castle in Scotland, the Windsors quibble over protocol, oblivious to the mass outpouring of grief back outside Buckingham Palace. “I think the less attention we draw to it, the better,” Elizabeth primly declares. Her instinct is to do nothing. Blair's is infinitely savvier. The politician steps into the breach, hailing Diana as “the people's princess.”
For most of the movie, Frears cuts between the cheeky operatives in Blair's office and the clueless royals ensconced at Balmoral. Although a great symbolic stag wanders into the proceedings as if from Narnia, it's the repeated use of Diana's actual image that, paradoxically, grounds the movie both in reality and myth. (The archival footage is skillfully integrated. The climactic funeral is particularly well edited, with Diana's peers Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise visible in the crowd and the actors playing royals shown, as if on TV, uncontrollably twitching during the eulogy given by Diana's brother.)
The integration of doc and drama is integral to The Queen's meaning in that Diana's apotheosis was a true triumph of the image. Pursued by paparazzi, the world's most photographed woman died in what might have been the subject for one of Andy Warhol's silk-screened “disasters.” For a full week, her posthumous presence monopolized the TV news, which simultaneously amplified initially spontaneous expressions of grief into a massive instance of collective theater, a public ritual performed for the camera. Small wonder that the quaintly cloistered House of Windsor was flummoxed — especially since, for them, Diana was an actual person.
Because the image rules, The Queen's real queen is Diana. But because the movie is essentially a high-wire acting stunt, its star is Mirren. Could the actual Elizabeth exhibit anything approaching the actress' wit or timing? Could she be nearly as intelligent in her confusion or stylish in her regal dowdiness? The script's attempts to humanize the monarch (she mutters “bugger it” when her Jeep gets stuck, suffers the conjugal nickname “cabbage”) are less important than the elegance with which Mirren offers her interpretation. The script even allows her to acknowledge her own canny impersonation, sniffing that “nowadays people want glamour and tears, the grand performance.”
Where Mirren's performance is grandly controlled, the other royals — described by the irrepressible Cherie Blair (Helen McCrory) as a bunch of “freeloading, emotionally retarded nutters” — are shown as innately comic. His every expression a paralyzed grimace, Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) is a pathetic Bertie Wooster type poignantly trying to creep beneath Blair's wing, hoping that his mother will take the bullet (real or metaphoric) otherwise meant for him. The tipsy Queen Mum (Sylvia Syms) is mainly upset that Diana's funeral will poach on the plans she had made for her own interment while Prince Philip, played for maximum unpleasantness by James Cromwell, is the designated royal pain.
Philip compares the crowds outside Buckingham to “hordes of Zulus” besieging a colonial outpost and calls buttinsky Blair a “bloody fool.” Blair, of course, is an idealistic commoner and hence the movie's hero. “Will someone please save these people from themselves because as prime minister I really have nothing better to do,” he snaps at his staff before manfully shouldering his responsibility to queen and country. Thanks to him, Elizabeth stoically realizes her duty, however grudgingly. By the movie's end, Blair is totally identified with Elizabeth's pain all the way back to her uncle's abdication — as are the filmmakers. No less than any showbiz personage, she has submitted to the tyranny of ratings.
A posh hack who's only as interesting as his material, Frears has never redeemed the early promise of Bloody Kids, nor returned to the form of My Beautiful Laundrette, nor made anything nearly as ambitious as Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. Nevertheless, The Queen is his career-capper — maybe even his knight's move. Whether Tony Blair actually saved the British monarchy, Frears has made it seem so, and even worth doing.