Ask me about English royalty and you will get a blank look. Ask me what I know about Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, the late Princess Diana, or Tony Blair and you will likely get a shoulder shrug and a mumbled "I dunno." In other words, I am the ideal candidate to see The Queen. Or not.
The movie takes a look inside Buckingham palace as the nation and the world looks on, waiting for some sort of reaction to the death of Princess Diana in August of 1997. It is a blend of archival news footage and newly filmed footage all put together with the intent of giving us a look inside as those behind the walls deal with their own personal reactions weighed against what they believe is expected of people in their position.
I would be lying if I said the material was a little dry. At the same time, it was also intriguing to see this clash of the modern world with the centuries old traditions of royalty that have developed. It is the sign of a changing world, where what the people expect does not fall in line with the old ways the Royal Family follows. For such a drastic change to happen there are a lot of pains they must struggle with. Those old traditions are a hard habit to break, especially if that is all you know.
The Queen pits the new modern world, led by the newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), against the old, led by Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren). It is an intimate view of this struggle to come to grips with a changing world, seemingly too quick to keep up with.
The film opens with the election of Tony Blair and his first meeting with the Queen while holding that title. For her, it was just another meeting with another Prime Minister, filled with tradition, and more than a little uncomfortable for Blair, who has what could be considered radical thoughts on the modernization of the country. Fast-forward a few months to that fateful day when Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed were killed in a tragic car accident in Paris.
The majority of the film deals with the week from the Princess' death and her burial and the reactions coming from the Queen. Queen Elizabeth II's first thoughts are for her grandchildren and keeping themselves distanced from the event. She is more than content with letting Diana's family deal with the private funeral. However, considering how much of a public figure Princess Di was, how beloved she was by the people, and how she stood by what she believed to be right, the Queen’s distance may not be the right decision.
The Prime Minister has other thoughts, first making a public appearance and statement before turning his attentions to the lack of action from the throne. The remainder of the film deals with Elizabeth's struggle to come to terms with the rapidly changing world.
This film was very good. Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen absolutely carry this film with their excellent portrayals of the Queen and Prime Minister. Mirren, in particular, is quite moving. The role is a stoic one and there is so much that plays across the face of Mirren. Her performance is quiet; subtle changes are what make it work. The rest of the cast is also quite good, particularly James Cromwell as Prince Phillip, who can hardly contain his distaste for the late Princess, and Alex Jennings as Prince Charles, portrayed as a man who is scared of the Queen as he tries to make buddies with Prime Minister Blair.
Peter Morgan has written a quietly insightful screenplay, full of sly humor. The subject may seem a bit dry, and it is, but the script does manage to keep it interesting. It is a smart, intelligent script that invites the viewer to think about it, to become part of the implications of what happened, and see how the country was changing before the Queen’s very eyes. Director Stephen Frears, who also directed last year's excellent Mrs. Henderson Presents, delivers a tight film that focuses on the performances; nothing crosses the screen without purpose.
Bottomline. I may not have the greatest interest in the Royal Family, but this film does offer some insight into what happened behind, primarily, closed doors. Basically, this is a quietly beautiful film, anchored by some fine acting performances.