This film is playing at the 44th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. It’s the opening night film, and it’s playing Friday, September 29th at 8:15 (Alice Tully Hall) and 9 (Avery Fisher Hall). For information on how to get tickets, click here. Be aware that even if a show is sold out there will be a Rush line, where you may have a chance to get seats.
To my American sensibilities the British Royal Family is a bizarre and inexplicable phenomenon, a holdover from another world and a completely different age. I always looked at the relationship between the British and the monarchy as being similar to an adult who still lives at home with his mom – sure he likes it, but maybe it’s time to move out and be a grownup a little.
After watching Stephen Frears’ The Queen I think I was half right. But the movie also gave a deeper understanding – and almost admiration – for the strange and outdated relationship between Elizabeth II and her subjects. There is that maternal connection there, but there’s also something deeper and stranger and deeply profound. The Queen, in many ways, IS Britain.
The majority of the film deals with the days between Princess Diana’s death in a car crash and her funeral. It’s been a year since she and Prince Charles split, and as far as the Queen and her husband Prince Philip are concerned, Diana has spent every day of that year doing anything possible to humiliate them in the eyes of the world. Elizabeth reacts to Diana’s death completely within the confines of her family, utterly underestimating and never understanding the depths of the public’s grief. To Elizabeth there’s no question as to what she should do in the days following the car accident: follow 400 years of official protocol… and besides, Diana was no longer part of the Royal Family anyway.
Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth is a smart, controlled woman trapped between the shifting tectonic plates of history. She’s moved by Diana’s death only insofar as it affects her grandchildren, but she’s not being cold when she refuses to fly the flag at half-mast over Buckingham Palace – for four centuries that flag has only flown when the Royal Family is in residence and they’re currently at their country estate in Balmoral… and besides the flag didn’t even fly at half-mast when her father the King died. But protocol and tradition mean nothing to the millions grieving in the streets, all of whom are looking to their Queen for something human at this moment.
Caught in the middle is Tony Blair (an eerily good physical facsimile in the form of Michael Sheen), the newly elected Prime Minister. He’s a self-proclaimed force for modernization, and his wife is staunchly anti-monarchist. He’s also a “man of the people,” a savvy political operator who understands the whims and feelings of the electorate (or I should say he DID understand them… recent history shows Blair quite defeated by the British people, something which is wittily foreshadowed towards the end of The Queen) and who understands what’s happening here – the Queen’s adherence to an outmoded set of rules is destroying the public faith in the Crown.
On paper this story seems to belong in a TV movie format – the shocking expose of what went on behind the scenes as the Royal Family struggled with Diana’s death! – but Frears and his cast create something deeper and smarter than that. The Queen is an intimate character study of a woman and a nation, and in its running time provides a lively debate about tradition versus change. Peter Morgan, who also wrote The Last King of Scotland, fits these political concepts neatly into characters surrounding Blair and Elizabeth, and his dialogue imbues it all with a dryly droll British humor. The Queen is surprisingly funny, but it’s funny in an understated way and in a way that’s true to the nature of the people, and human nature in general.
The film opens with a stark reminder that the Queen is not like one of us. Sitting for a portrait, she watches news footage of Tony Blair’s election and opines that she’ll never be able to vote. The painter says he understands, but that he can’t feel too bad for her – she can’t vote, but it is her government after all. Elizabeth likes to say that she understands the British people, but she’s cloistered away in a bubble, especially after the family heads to spend the summer at Balmoral, the Scottish estate that she tells Blair allows one to forget about the rest of the world. In many ways The Queen is an excellent companion piece to Marie Antoinette, also playing at the New York Film Festival, as both films are about women whose positions as royalty keep them out of touch – one fatally and one almost so, in a political sense.
For Elizabeth the mourning of Diana is a private matter for the family, and even at Balmoral it’s done quietly and with restraint – Diana’s children are taken out hunting the very next day under the assumption that fresh air will do them well. A young woman during World War II, Elizabeth is among the last of the stiff upper lip generation, and she believes that the rest of England is the same way. She couldn’t be more wrong. What makes Mirren’s performance so wonderful is how she slowly allows us through that stiff upper lip exterior while never really breaking through the royal exterior. There’s one brief scene where Elizabeth, alone amidst the 40,000 acres of Balmoral wilderness, sheds some tears in a quiet, understated way but Mirren gives it the emotional wallop of a full-on breakdown.
Late in the film Elizabeth’s private secretary tries to explain to Blair why she’s so hung up on protocol and so seemingly cold, but Mirren’s performance has already made this scene extraneous – her basic humanity shines through like a light beneath a sheet of ice. We didn’t know the specifics before that scene, but we understood the reasons. It’s one of the finest performances of the year, and Mirren handles it effortlessly, flipping between humor and drama sometimes within a single sentence.
The best films bring you inside a world you would never otherwise experience, and Frears brings us right into the heart of the royal cocoon. It’s a fascinating world, and maybe it’s just the yokel American in me, but it was amazing to see the Queen of England get behind the wheel of a 4×4 truck and go driving across a shallow river. Mirren allows us into the heart of this woman, but the rest of the film gives us privileged glimpses of everything else around her, a strange and formal place.
By the end of the film Blair finds himself impressed and moved by Elizabeth’s dignity and grace. It’s hard not to agree, but it’s also hard not to suspect that the deck has been a little stacked – the film downplays the reportedly enormous personal animosity between Elizabeth and Diana (Frears and Morgan place most of those feelings on Philip, played to great effect by James Cromwell). As the days dragged on without so much as a statement from the Queen, many in Britain suspected that she was taking the last opportunity to snub Diana. While I tend to agree with that, I like Frears’ assertion that she just simply found herself too far removed from her subjects.