The Queen Review
By Joe Lozito
I never thought I'd get choked up over a movie about the stuffy upper-crust of the British monarchy, but then along came "The Queen", director Stephen Frears' piercing, unbiased and ultimately moving portrayal of the affect of Princess Diana's death on the Royal Family. Mr. Frears, working from a script by Peter Morgan ("The Last King of Scotland"), goes where few films have gone before: inside Buckingham Palace (though most of the film is spent at a summer retreat). "The Queen" offers a glimpse of what it must be like to be part of an establishment that many find archaic or powerless, and it does so with elegance, even-handedness and a pitch-perfect performance by Helen Mirren as the title.
The film opens with Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) meeting Queen Elizabeth for the first time as her Prime Minister. Immediately there is a clash of old and new which will inform the rest of the film as Blair makes the mistake of asking the Queen's permission to take the role of PM. You see, tradition dictates it is the Queen who must ask him. Their relationship gets off on the wrong foot here, but they give each other the benefit of the doubt - each understanding the need for the other. This moment is key, and it's the first of many subtle cultural conflicts in the film. The Queen is part of the Old Guard; Blair, and Princess Di, for that matter, represent a new generation - one not so concerned with class and decorum.
Princess Diana's death, which is depicted discreetly, brings this cultural discord to the fore when the British citizenry demand a reaction from the Queen, who in turn feels as though the matter should be handled in private (the Queen, after all, feels Princess Di was no longer part of the Royal Family). The way the film handles this conflict is part of its greatness - it is sharp without being disrespectful, clear without being pandering and strong without choosing sides.
Much has already been made about Ms. Mirren's performance, and rightfully so. This is one of those moments when actor and role are indistinguishable. The friction that permeates the film - this culture shock - plays out across the actress' face in each scene. Is the monarchy outmoded? Has she lost touch with her subjects? How do you rule in these times? The actress plays with each question silently, since there are few people the Queen can turn to - she is, after all, the Queen.
It is important to note that Ms. Mirren is supported by a first-rate cast across the board. In particular, Mr. Sheen plays Tony Blair as wonderfully shrewd beneath a boyish exterior. His handling of the press, his staff and the Royal Family is masterful. Likewise, Alex Jennings puts an interesting spin on Prince Charles, who comes off at once self-obsessed and tragic.
Mr. Frears, whose work is as varied as Dirty Pretty Things
and High Fidelity
, does a fantastic job keeping the film moving, both in terms of pacing and emotion. Princess Diana's memory permeates the film, but it is never exploitative. Mr. Frears makes it clear that this "People's Princess" was a person herself, with flaws and family quarrels. This point has been made before about Diana but rarely about the Queen herself. That is, until now.