The Queen

 
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by:Peter Morgan
Starring: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Sylvia Syms, Alex Jennings, Helen McCrory
Released: December 26, 2006
Grade: A-

Princess Diana’s death on 31 August 1997 shocked people around the world.  Most all of us can remember where we were on hearing the news.  The magnitude of the event and the effect it would have on the people of Great Britain could never have been predicted.  A sea of flowers was placed outside the gates of Buckingham Palace and her home at Kensington Palace.  People slept in the streets so that could watch the funeral procession.  London came to standstill.

One year earlier, Diana had divorced Prince Charles.  Whilst it seemed to be a mutual decision, the majority of the public took the side of Princess Diana.  The feeling was that she had been caught up in the royal “institution” and cast aside because she didn’t fit their mould.  Charles’ rumoured affair with Camilla Parker Bowles did further harm to the royal family’s image.

Stephen Frears’ film looks the actions of Queen Elizabeth and other members of the Royal Family in the week following Princess Diana’s death.  In her 45 year reign, the Queen had never come under such scrutiny from the British people.  She did not release a statement, she did not lower the flags to half mast and she did not make an appearance to comfort the mourners.  Newspaper headlines were scathing of her decisions and one survey suggested that one in four citizens were in favour of abolishing the monarchy.

If we believe what the film tells us, the Queen’s savour was the newly elected British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.  Mr Blair had gauged the mood of the public and felt that the Royal Family’s actions, whilst in line with protocol, were incorrect.  He nervously pressured the Queen into bowing to the public’s demands.  History tells us that she did.  On 5 September 1997, the Queen left her summer holiday home at Balmoral, travelled to Buckingham Palace, paid her respects and gave a live broadcast to the nation at 6pm.

In my eyes, the film does not take a stance on whether the Queen’s initial decision to ignore the public was right and wrong.  It does however give us plenty to think about.  We get to see the events unfold from the Queen’s perspective and it’s quite different from what you might think.  She has been brought up to believe in the importance of protocol and it’s hard for her to fathom why she should do anything considering Diana was no longer a member of the Royal Family.  For instance, the flags weren’t lowered to half mast even after the death of her own father in 1952 (who was King at the time).

If you’re wondering how writer Peter Morgan came up with the script, the film’s website tells us that it has been based on “extensive interviews, devoted research, discreet sources and informed imagination.”  Given that the Queen is such a private person, I’d like to how exactly how much of the story is based on fact as opposed to “informed imagination”.  It may not be as accurate as a portrayal as we are led to believe.  That said, the Queen’s private secretary has invited a few of the filmmakers over for lunch early next year so there’s an implication that it has her Majesty’s approval.

What makes the film so compelling are the terrific performances turned in by Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair.  I’ve seen the film twice and I’m finding it hard to remember what their real-life counterparts look and sound like.  Their posture, voice and demeanour are just as I would imagine.  Mirren has been declared a certainty to win the best actress Oscar in March next year but I’d like to see Sheen rewarded with a nomination for best supporting actor.  They’re equally good.

The film’s re-enacted drama feels a little overdramatised at times (I still don’t understand the significance of the stag subplot) but director Frears maintained my interest by including actual news footage.  We get to listen to the BBC news reports and hear the actual interviews from members of the public who were critical of the Queen.  It gives the film a heightened sense of reality and believability.

I must bow and remove my hat to The Queen.