Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Queen

Stephen Frears' very clever "The Queen" starts out as a comedy of manners, evolves into a docudrama and concludes with a blame game. And, remarkably, it almost always succeeds at all three.

As a comedy of manners, it forces us to make the concession that, despite their often boorish behavior, the British royal family has some. Or at least Queen Elizabeth II, rendered flawlessly by Helen Mirren, does. The rest of the family, James Cromwell's devilishly rude Prince Phillip, Alex Jennings' weasely Prince Charles and Sylvia Sims' three-quarters dead queen mum all get quips in, but this movie is at its quiet best when it's all Helen.

The story here involves the days surrounding the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris, and the reaction to it. The beauty in Mirren's performance is that, though she keeps up the queen's stoic demeanor throughout, you can clearly see glimpses of the contempt she must have felt for this women who, in her eyes, had mocked and embarrassed her at every turn. The Oscar will be hers, but it should still be an interesting race.

The news comes in August 1997, just as the royals have taken off to Scotland for their summer vacation and Tony Blair (a perfectly cloying Michael Sheen) has just been annointed as prime minister. It's in their first encounter that Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan show their collective wit, and Helen McCrory's cursory curtsy to the queen as Cherie Blair is priceless.

In Morgan's view, it was as much Mr. Blair's constant need for approval as any kind of statesmanlike quality that led him to guide the queen into a public sign of grief she so clearly dreaded. It's the same puppy-dog tendencies that made him follow George Bush into Iraq, and though that's never stated overtly, it hangs heavily over the entire proceeding.

And as their dynamic evolves, the reality of the surreal week keeps intruding into their little palace intrigue in very funny ways. Gordon Brown and The Guardian newspaper are among the victims of some deftly delivered jabs. (And I was the victim of an elbow to the gut from my date, who pointed out, rather pointedly, that "even the queen has a cell phone," which I do not.)

The blame game is where it treads onto dicey but very rewarding ground. Coming in to "The Queen," I was already predisposed to support Mr. Morgan's rather unpopular premise: That the outpouring of grief for Princess Diana was a freak show as much as anything.

Like the queen, I was on vacation too when Diana died, though in the mountains of Skyline Drive in Virginia, not Balmoral in Scotland. I can remember seeing the paper and thinking "huh, Diana died," and then, also like the queen, going on with my day.

I watched the next week's proceedings with much the same contempt as she did, but didn't have to keep that bottled up (and didn't). I, however, have yet to become the face of a nation, and so could get away with being contrarian.

But the queen could not, and Stephen Frears' film is at its best when it shows how she slowly came down from her perch to deal with that reality.


james higham said...

I never ever liked Diana. She was comletely unsuited for the job and was sly. Her '95 interview was quite revealing.

Anonymous said...

As a longtime fan of Helen Mirren and, I must confess, someone who does follow the exploits of the royals, I must say that I really want to see this movie. Thanks for the review!

Ian said...

Looking forward to seeing this film when it comes out on DVD (it was originally made for TV and several reviewers here have said it should have stayed that way and doesn't gain anything by becoming a theatrical release). Helen Mirren is always worth watching.

I have a slightly different view on Diana. I was appalled by the "national mourning" that happened after her death. It shows how as a nation we've become obsessed with "the cult of celebrity" or feel we can identify with people we THINK we know based on media coverage that often has its own agenda.

That Diana was manipulative is pretty obvious I think, and it's fairly obvious to this ovserver that Harry looks far more like the "posh love cheat" she had a fling with than Charles. But she also brought a lot of happiness to people. I used to do volunteer work in a Christian-run AIDS hospice. Diana visited and a photo of her shaking hands with a patient made front-page news all over the world. It did a lot to shake off the irational fear and prejudice of those suffering with AIDS.

What never appeared in the press(because they were never told) was that when that same patient died Diana attended the funeral. With no fuss, no real security to tell of, and no publicity. It showed she had a real human touch, which too many of those in the royal "business" of the family DON'T have.

Reel Fanatic said...

I have no beef whatsoever with Diana, Ian, and am aware that she did many good things while she was alive ... what this movie touches on, though, along with the dynamic between the queen and Blair, was this "cult of celebrity" you spoke of, and how much it was despised - correctly, I think - by the queen

2 Dollar Productions said...

Very good review, and this movie has garnered lots of praise. That being said, I just don't think I can bring myself to see it as I could generally care less about the British Royal Family.

I'm sure Helen Mirren will be up for an Oscar if I was betting.

Marina said...

Excellent review. I was pleasantly surprised by this little film. I went in for a great performance and came out with a little more heart for the queen.

Anonymous said...

The late Quentin Crisp spoke truthfully, if bluntly, that Princess Diana's own fast and shallow lifestyle contributed to her demise: "She could have been Queen of England -- and she was swanning about Paris.   What disgraceful behavior. Going about saying she wanted to be the queen of hearts. The vulgarity of it is so overpowering." (Atlanta Southern Voice, 1 July 1999).

The "queen of hearts" remains the poster girl of superficial culture and narcissistic celebrities who go emoting about everything and nothing of substance.  But who was she really?

Both Diana and her brother, Charles Spencer, suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder caused by their mother's abandoning them as young children.  A google search reveals that Diana is considered a case study in BPD by mental health professionals.

For Charles Spencer, BPD meant insatiable sexual promiscuity (his wife was divorcing him at the time of Diana's death).

For Diana, BPD meant intense insecurity and insatiable need for attention and affection which even the best husband could never fulfill.  From a BPD perspective, it's clear that the Royal family did not cause her "problems". Rather, she brought her multiple problems into the marriage, and the Royal family was hapless to cope with them.

Her illness, untreated, sowed the seeds of her fast and unstable lifestyle, and sadly, her tragic fate.