"Sleeping in the streets and pulling out their hair for someone they never knew. And they think we're mad!" Prince Philip (James Cromwell) vents to his wife, Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren). Diana, Princess of Wales, has just died in a car wreck, and the British people are reacting as if their leader and messiah had kicked the bucket.
But Diana’s death isn’t the subject of The Queen, nor is it primarily about Elizabeth. Instead of a biography, we have a delicate, thoughtful study of the way the world’s most famous royal family has been forced to change by a rapidly "modernizing" world. The family has lived in splendor that makes even a proud capitalist like myself wince, but their lives are far from easy, with a moral responsibility that would crush a god, but must be borne by a mere mortal.
Even as we know that the British monarchy doesn’t yield anywhere near the power that a typical Western head of state does, I was surprised to see how in many ways they are at the virtual mercy of their subjects. The demise of Diana shakes the public to its core, but Elizabeth insists on treating the death like it would any other outside of the family; by doing and saying nothing.
Cold as it may seem at a glance, Elizabeth is following tradition, a set of rules strictly followed for hundreds of years before she was born. Nonetheless, the public, fueled by the notoriously vicious British press, demands concessions such as putting a flag half-mast over Buckingham Palace and a royal funeral, all for a woman who was no longer part of that family.
The Queen devotes time to the governmental aspect of the Diana crisis, with newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) working overtime to tread the thin line between an angry populace and the queen. His advisors lean leftward away from the monarchy, and even his wife (Helen McCroy) stops just short of directly disrespecting Elizabeth, an unthinkable act for her more conservative husband. Blair has no desire to see the monarchy damaged, but finds himself willing to pressure the queen to acquiesce to the national mood.
Throughout the film, one question kept popping into mind; how can the British citizens respect the monarchy yet demand it bend to satisfy their desires? Aren’t traditions and reserve two of the qualities that have endeared people to this fabulously privileged family? What worth does the monarchy have if they, like all other politicians in a democracy, have to dance to the tune of every idiot with a TV set?
These questions alarm Elizabeth, who contemplates them with a silent horror spelled out in her eyes. The film claims these few days represented the most potent threat to the monarchy in Elizabeth’s lifetime, with 1 in 4 polled Britons advocating the abolition of the institution. Even Blair remarks in amazement that after 45 years of dutifully fulfilling her role as sovereign, opinion turns on her over the death of a woman who was no longer a royal, had embarrassed the family to no end, and that Elizabeth likely despised.
The unfamiliar and the disinterested should beware as little to no background information on the family is given, and no attempt to please those who find the subject boring is made. Somewhat perplexing is the near complete lack of focus on the personal grief of Diana’s children, which could have slowed down the pace, but feels conspicuous with its absence. I went with a friend, no intellectual slouch, and he dozed off after about 15 minutes.
I, however, found the pace to be brisk and the narrative fascinating. We know that the monarchy doesn’t fall, but director Stephen Frears deftly enables a degree of suspense and curiosity to exist through the excellent performances, particularly Helen Mirren’s, which has already generated significant Oscar buzz. I’m by no stretch an expert on the real Elizabeth, but if this film is indicative of her true character and will, then long live the queen.
3.5 out of 5