The Queen
directed by Stephen Frears
(Miramax, 2006)

It's good to be the king. Of that, Mel Brooks left little doubt. But what about the queen? That can be a tough nut to crack, as Helen Mirren shows us in -- what else? -- The Queen.

Mirren's "queen," of course, is Elizabeth II, monarch of Great Britain for so long it's hard to imagine the place without her.

But this is 1997. The times they are a-changin', and no one wants to make that more perfectly clear than Prime Minister-elect Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who has just ridden a wave of modernization into office after 18 years of Tory rule.

It's a tough day for QE2 as The Queen opens. It's her obligation -- or privilege, depending on your point of view -- to meet with Mr. Blair and ask him to form a government for her. But testy as that might seem, things are about to get a whole lot worse: Princess Diana is about to die in a car wreck that nearly turns into a train wreck for Britain's first family.

Diana is none too popular with the royal brood, whom she's just divorced. Director Stephen Frears (Mrs. Henderson Presents, High Fidelity) makes that perfectly clear via comments from not just the queen, but her husband, Prince Phillip (James Cromwell of Six Feet Under fame); her son, Prince Charles (Alex Babel Jennings); and the always wisecracking Queen Mother (Sylvia Sims).

At issue is whether Diana, who's technically not a princess anymore, should have a public or a private funeral. The royal family sides quickly with Diana's family to say it should be private. But Blair disagrees, and he has the backing of a couple of million Brits. Within days, a significant portion of the British public comes to question the need to continue the United Kingdom's long and expensive tradition.

To most Americans, who've long enjoyed watching English monarchs from afar, this all might come across as a tempest in the royal teapot. But Frears, who builds his case quickly but carefully, lays it out so we can see it for what it is: a crisis with national, if not international, implications. More importantly, Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan, who won an Oscar for his script, get past the vague outline of the conflict and proceed to detail the growing alliances between Blair and the members of the royal household -- Prince Charles and the family's chief adviser, Robin Janvim (Roger Allam) -- who agree that it might be time for a wee bit of modernization, even in Buckingham Palace.

Frears and Morgan then take what could be a one-dimensional tale one step further, capturing the changes wrought in both Blair and the queen as the conflict plays out on the streets of London. For though this film is called The Queen, it's as much about her new prime minister as it is about her -- perhaps it should have been named The Blair-Queen Project.

It's also a tour-de-force for its performers, and none more so than Mirren, who seems to have QE2's every little move down -- and the hair, which never moves. Cromwell, too, seems to be enjoying his part, and why not: He and Sims get most of the good lines.

And then there's that unmistakable feeling that we've somehow wandered into some kind of royal West Wing. Frears plays that up for all it's worth, taking us on occasion nearly to the point of Wag the Dog only to quickly retreat back to the reality of the situation.

Finally, kudos to Frears for his deft combination of original footage and newsreel shots of Diana mourners lining the streets of London with flowers.

So in the end, we get a surprisingly good history lesson, while Blair and the queen learn a little about politics -- all in the comfort of our respective living rooms.

review by
Miles O'Dometer

22 November 2008

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