Though it’s set in 1997, this film’s very title conjures up Elizabethan imagery, a fact that illustrates one of its themes: the anachronism of the monarchy. Its subject is Elizabeth II during the extraordinary week following Princess Diana’s death, when the royals’ initial insistence on showing no public emotion threatened, in its heedlessness to the people’s pain, to ignite a scandal. She is played by the great Helen Mirren, one of the UK’s most distinguished actresses (who has in fact played Elizabeth I as well). Diana’s death coincided with the advent of the young Tony Blair, and though the Queen is meant to advise the P.M. rather than the other way round, the film is about Blair’s delicate dance to persuade Elizabeth that she must take the unprecedented step of making a public statement. (Michael Sheen is brilliant as the young Blair, ages before his ill-advised alliance with the man W. doomed him.) When it is first suggested to her that she return to Buckingham Palace (the gates of which the people have transformed into a massive shrine to Diana) from her private residence at Balmoral Castle and step in front of the camera to address “her people”, she initially pooh-poohs the very idea, replying that the hallmark of the British as a people is that “we do things quietly and with dignity…and that’s what the world has always admired about us”.
Director Stephen Frears utilizes actual footage of Diana, letting us gaze upon her enigmatic visage, eternally beautiful, seen at last turning towards us in slow motion.
And though Frears and writer Peter Morgan focus on the PR moves of the image-constructing machinery (the coining of Blair’s phrase “the people’s princess” to describe Diana, the insertion at the last minute of the personalizing words “as a grandmother” into Elizabeth’s address), this artifice is contrasted with the utter sincerity of the public’s outpouring of pain and love, movingly documented in newsreel footage.
Hoping to take the grandkids’ minds off their mother’s death, Elizabeth’s husband Prince Phillip leads a hunting party tracking a stag over the hills of Scotland. Elizabeth is secretly on the stag’s side. Coming face to face with the hunted stag when her car breaks down in the countryside (at the very moment when, alone, she has allowed herself to weep) and hearing the hunting party approaching, she shoos the majestic animal away. It’s a powerful moment: perhaps some traditions shouldn’t be adhered to anymore.
Mirren allows hints of wistfulness to surface, suggesting the conflicted feelings coming to a head inside of a woman who’s been taught to always tamp down her emotions. What must it be like to be not merely extremely famous, but a figurehead, a symbol, loved or reviled for what you represent, particularly when you had a role thrust upon you when you were quite young that you didn’t particularly want? The Queen is happiest when she’s walking with her beloved Corgis—what a relief to be around creatures who don’t care who you are. One of the miraculous things about Mirren’s performance is that we can occasionally glimpse in the elderly Queen’s expression, heavy with years, the young Elizabeth that we’ve seen in old footage. And though the royals, including Elizabeth, can come off as rather comic figures at times, she’s the farthest thing from foolish. The empire may not be what it once was, but she remains Her Majesty.
This is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.
- Nov 20, 2006