THE QUEEN                                                                                                                          
Diana's heavenly shadow over the Palace, and royal tradition at a crossroads Movie Review: "The Queen"

By Omar P.L. Moore/October 15, 2006

Dame Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, with Sylvia Sims behind her as The Queen Mother, in Stephen Frears' "The Queen".  Mirren ironically played Sylvia Sims' role (as Queen Elizabeth I) in an HBO film, earlier this year.  (Photo: Laurie Sparham/Miramax Films)

With "The Queen" the venerable British director Stephen Frears has not only made a film with all the wickedly satirical bite of a sledgehammer, he has made an often funny movie that features Dame Helen Mirren in what will be an Oscar-winning performance next March.  (That's a humble guarantee.)  Mirren plays Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and looks remarkably like the real-life Queen.  Mirren's comportment, diction, demure and mannerisms echo the stoicism and staidness of one of the West's last monarchs. 

The story itself is about the week of turmoil that engulfed Buckhingham Palace as the British public and the rest of the world grieved and mourned the loss of Diana, Princess of Wales, a free and independent spirit whose openness and warmth was at odds with the centuries of royal tradition.  Diana's death on the 31st of August 1997 shook the world and even Mother Teresa's subsequent death in that following week was overshadowed by the memories of Diana. 

The Queen and the rest of the Royal Family was slow to react to the untimely death of Princess Diana and her beau Dodi Fayed, and this reticence both stirred and angered the British public and the press, which demanded that Elizabeth express her condolences and emotion.  Almost co-incidentally, the recently-elected new prime minister of the country, Tony Blair of the Labor Party, had led in the initial responses to the public in tribute to the beloved Diana, dubbing her "The People's Princess."

What is particularly special and noteworthy about "The Queen" is that although Diana's shadow looms large and heavenly over the film in real-life news and video footage, it is the relationship between new and old that is important.  Specifically the relationship between the new prime minister, a man just three months into his job, and the Queen, a woman more than three decades into hers.  This relationship is the key to the film, and makes for solid character drama where a documentary may have turned Frears' film down a different avenue.  Michael Sheen is very good as Prime Minister Blair -- he looks like him and acts as he does, yes, but he also conveys strength in his position as an advisor to the ruling monarch even as he has his own doubts and confidences about how the public will react to the Queen and how he himself will fare in his own position in politics.  Sheen overshadows the prime minister's own insecurities by going at the Queen gently, persuading her to make herself available to the public, while he at the same time rips royal tradition behind her back, and delivers the film's best line: "somebody save these people from themselves!"

True enough, the Queen concedes that a shift in generations and the winds of change in England are blowing in a conversation with her mother The Queen Mother (Sylvia Sims) and with the press, public and prime minister pressure mounting, the Queen makes a speech commending Diana as a special and gifted individual.  This unprecedented breaking with royal tradition is probably the hardest thing that the real Queen had to do, and Mirren makes it a painful ordeal as well, even if it appears concealed.  Emotion is not the most popular attribute for any British royal, but Mirren manages to convey humor, melancholy and doubts, making her Queen a very human figure beneath the ice-cold, passionless veneer that she projects in her official duties.  Peter Morgan, who wrote the film's sharp and witty screenplay, drops more than a few delectable lines, lines that become ever so timely with this film's release.  One of the significant lines that draws chuckles from audiences is near the end where Mirren's Queen says to Sheen's Blair something to the effect of the following: "one of these days Mr. Blair, you'll understand what being unpopular is all about." 

The real Mr. Blair, whether he has seen this film or not, has received the message loud and clear.

The other performers in this comedy/drama are very good.  James Cromwell is terrific as an acerbic Prince Phillip, while Alex Jennings is near flawless as Prince Charles.  Helen McCrory plays Cherie Blair and does well in the limited screen time she enjoys.  "The Queen" is an enjoyable and entertaining 97 minutes of light farce, humor, satirical jousting and interesting character relationships.  It's worth watching for several reasons, including the poking of fun at the officiousness of the British Royal Family and its day-to-day business.  Watch out for those Corgis!

"The Queen" opened on October 6 in New York and Los Angeles, and was shown on opening night at both the New York Film Festival and the Mill Valley Film Festival in California.  The film opened on Friday in several west coast cities and is making its way around the rest of America.  The film is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for brief strong language.  As indicated earlier, the film runs for 1 hour and 37 minutes.

Copyright 2006.  All Rights Reserved.


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