Most of us can probably still remember exactly where we were the day Diana, Princess of Wales was killed in an automobile accident in 1997. Although recently divorced from Prince Charles and thus no longer a member of the Royal Family of England, Diana's death touched off a media firestorm and gained international attention worthy of the highest heads of state. People around the world mourned the loss of the beautiful, enigmatic, and highly publicized princess who was quickly elevated to a kind of sainthood. The gates of Buckingham Palace were flooded with thousands of bouquets and letters expressing sorrow and condolence. The only people who seemed to be unmoved by the event were the members of the Royal Family, who adamantly refused to speak publicly on the matter, much to the heated anger of the British people. After a week of fierce debate and questioning over whether the monarchy still had any relevance, Queen Elizabeth II finally agreed to speak live on television about Diana's death.
What occurred behind the scenes during that tumultuous week is the subject of screenwriter Peter Morgan and director Stephen Frears' acclaimed docudrama "The Queen." Through in-depth research and countless interviews, Morgan constructed a fascinating speculation of what might have gone through the Queen's mind during this time, which she now refers to as the worst week of her life. The film examines the clash between Queen Elizabeth's beloved tradition and the people's desire for a more progressive government. Most importantly, it offers a rare glimpse at the humanity behind a woman who is known around the world and yet hardly known at all.
The film opens with Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), candidate for Labor Prime Minister, waving to a cheering crowd as the news cameras roll. We then see Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) watching him on TV as she poses for a portrait. Dressed in her prestigious Garter robes and sitting upright in dignified manner, she is the very vision of unwavering tradition and nobility. By contrast, Blair is a bundle of energy with his high enthusiasm and mile-wide smile. His left-wing stance and possibly anti-monarchy views have made him a shoo-in, much to the queen's chagrin. In a very subtle way, this seemingly innocuous and humorous scene sets up the major conflict that will plague the Queen through the rest of the feature.
Blair is indeed elected the new Prime Minister, and his first task is to meet with the Queen for the traditional confirmation. She cheekily makes it very clear that she is not satisfied with the election results, but their meeting is cut short when she is called to respond to some breaking news. The news, of course, concerns the controversial exploits of Diana that have brought nothing but annoyance and scandal to the Royal Family. All of the Queen's preoccupations are pushed over the threshold when it is reported that Diana has been killed in that fateful accident. Stunned by the news, she sensibly turns her attention to her grandchildren and their wellbeing. Meanwhile, Blair's PR staff immediately gets to work on the speech he will make in response to the news. The next day, he delivers his speech live on television, calling Diana the "people's princess," a sentiment that unexpectedly strikes a chord with the British population.
The Royal Family is shocked by the sudden outpouring of sorrow from the public, who demand a public funeral for their princess. Because Diana was no longer an HRH, the Queen sees no reason for such lavish attention, and she decides to retreat to her home in the Scottish highlands with her grandchildren where they will be sheltered from the constant media coverage/exploitation of their mother. This decision only angers the British people even more, as they read her behavior as cold and unfeeling. Tony Blair finds himself faced with the difficult task of being the mediator between the public and the Queen, trying desperately to convince her that unless she yields to the people's wishes, the monarchy may be completely abandoned. Steadfast in her views but fearful for her reputation, she is forced to make a harrowing choice.
I must admit that the first time I watched this movie, I was left mostly unmoved. I thought it was a good movie, but not worth the hype that had been built up around it. However, something stayed with me, and as I delved through the special features I found myself becoming more and more intrigued. "The Queen" is a quiet, but deceptively complex movie. There are no melodramatic flourishes or scandalous revelations. The tone of the movie reflects the prim and dignified nature of its title character. But as with that character, beneath the simple and straightforward façade lies a hidden depth that does not announce itself with dramatic intensity. Instead, it reveals itself almost subliminally. It slyly challenges our preconceived views of the Royal Family, daring us to consider the possibility that what we all thought was a cold reaction might just have been a decent and justifiable response.
Of course, the film's greatest asset is lead actress Helen Mirren. In the most critically lauded performance of the year, Mirren is mesmerizing as the Queen. From her precise speech patterns down to her very walk, she eerily embodies her character with uncanny accuracy. It is fascinating to watch as she subtly and gracefully reveals the person behind the public figure we all know. What makes her performance even more amazing is that she expresses so much with little more than facial expressions, allowing a vulnerability to seep out between the cracks of her hardened public persona. In the film's most poignant moment, the Queen passes by the gates of Buckingham Palace, reading the notes that have been left for Diana as a crowd stares on. The letters are deeply insulting to her, and we see the pain in her eyes. But when she turns around, she smiles lovingly at the crowd, holding in the sorrow that she must feel so strongly, never allowing the public to see her personal troubles. It is a masterful moment and a beautiful stroke from Mirren.
Stephen Frears' direction is also superb. He keeps the movie focused squarely on the characters and never shoots for heavy sentimentality or pointed politicizing. One of his most brilliant choices is to interweave actual news footage of the mourning crowds and of Princess Diana with the filmed narrative. This effectively anchors the film in the reality of the event despite the fact that much of it is pure speculation. The carefully chosen shots of Diana are so well-placed that she almost seems to be an actor in the film. Her presence is felt by the viewer throughout, just as it must have been felt by the Queen.
Although the screenplay represents Peter Morgan's interpretation of the events and not documented fact, there is nary a false note in the film. It remains consistently believable, not only in terms of the events but even in the specific dialogue of each character. There is also a surprisingly wry sense of humor throughout. The only misstep is a pair of scenes involving a heavily symbolic stag. Though the first scene, in which the Queen catches sight of the magnificent animal during a drive, is quite lovely, the symbolism is a bit heavy handed, especially in the second scene, and seems out of place with the rest of the film. Even so, "The Queen" remains a truly remarkable work.
Released through Miramax by Buena Vista Home Entertainment, "The Queen" is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer that looks just incredible. In addition to using real news footage, Frears also shot the film with two different film stocks -- 35mm for the Queen's scenes and 16mm for Tony Blair's. This provides a visual contrast between the two characters, as the Queen is always seen in smooth, polished shots while Blair's scenes are rough and grainy. Buena Vista's transfer renders the intended looks faithfully. The image is crisp throughout, with no apparent artifacting or manipulation. Colors are vibrant, and skin tones look natural as well. In short, the film looks great.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 track is provided. As the film is dialogue-driven, there is not a lot to this, but the mix is quite effective during the recreation of Diana's car accident. The sounds of racing motorcycles and the speeding car are sent around all channels, while Alexandre Desplat's excellent score thunders in the back. Dialogue comes through clearly in the front channels. A Spanish 2.0 track is available, as well as optional English captions and Spanish subtitles. Also available are subtitles for the commentary tracks, which I strongly feel should become a standard DVD feature.
Stephen Frears and Peter Morgan provide an entertaining commentary track for the movie. They seem to be having a good time pointing out aspects of the production and the responses the film has received. Their discussion is informative and quite funny. A second audio commentary is provided by Robert Lacey, British historian and Royal expert who served as the historical consultant on the film. This is a very useful, screen-specific track, with Lacey explaining and elaborating on many of the traditions, formalities, and historical references in the film that will probably be lost on American viewers.
A 20-minute featurette, "The Making of The Queen," provides informative interviews with cast and crew about getting into character, the production, and memories of the historical week depicted in the film. This is very much a no-frills feature, as is fitting for a film like this, and it is a nice companion to Frears and Morgan's commentary.
While we may never know exactly what occurred between the Queen and Tony Blair the week that Diana died, this film provides a thought-provoking scenario that lets us see the Royal Family's perspective. Ten years after the event, it is easier for us to see it this way and perhaps even understand why they were so reluctant to feed the nation's frenzy. Without a doubt, "The Queen" is one of the most provocative films I have seen in some time. Do not let the simple structure fool you. This is a richly layered and complex movie that invites multiple viewings in order to appreciate all that it has to say about its familiar but misunderstood subject.