REVIEW: “The Queen” (***1/2)

Posted by · 10:39 am · September 2nd, 2006

Miramax Films\' The QueenStephen Frears is one of the most versatile working directors in the industry.  With that versatility comes the inevitable misstep from time to time, sure.  But also with it comes a high order of professionalism and a certain amount of confidence that can manifest the most precise of cinematic creations.

“The Queen” is just such a film.  Carefully calibrated and wound to a specific 103 minutes, it is a modest and fine hour for a director who has been cranking out work of the highest quality for over two decades.

“The Queen” tells the behind-the-veil story of the days following Princess Diana’s tragic death in August of 1997.  As the world mourned the passing of one of the most important political figures of the 20th century, Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and her family holed up in their Scotland compound, choosing to handle matters with restraint, dignity and in privacy.

Newly appointed Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), with his sites set on modernizing the outdated government and bringing it back in touch with the people of the land, felt the decision to refrain from public access was detrimental to a country that desperately needed guidance and to share in the grief.

The “black sheep” opinion the family had of Diana was an unpopular stance to say the least.  While they always saw her as a blight on the crown, the citizens of England saw her as the people’s princess, one of their own, and a woman unwavering in her desire to make the world a better place.

Only a year divorced from Prince Charles (portrayed in the film by dead ringer Alex Jennings) when she died, Diana had endured public embarrassment after Charles’s well-publicized, long-term affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles.  Diana herself admitted to her own extra-marital affair as well, but it goes without saying, the marriage was an unhappy one.

Hounded by the media and ultimately the most photographed person ever, Diana’s life was never her own.  That turbulent year was perhaps the most difficult for her in that regard and it might be too easy to say the media killed her in the end.  It may be more applicable to say the very nature of celebrity killed her, but regardless, even in death, she would rally the attention of a billion people who tuned in to view her public funeral (a festivity proposed by Tony Blair and fought against by the Royal Family).

Michael Sheen and Helen Mirren in The QueenThe relationship established between Elizabeth and Blair is a delicate one, and certainly a dramatic one.  It might be the oldest story in the book, but it is still one of the most relevant.  The clashing of policies is something the world will struggle with until we are no longer the dominant species.

Blair’s progressive ideas about leading with the people, not ahead of them, was outlandish to the Queen and, most especially, to Prince Phillip (James Cromwell).  Those disagreements truly came to a head that week, and their focus was rightly on the well-being of William and Henry, two boys who lost their mother and should be shielded from the poisoning words of the media.  But as they retreated, their country grew impatient and, ultimately, aggressively disappointed.

Dame Helen Mirren is absolutely irresistible in the role of Queen Elizabeth II (she ironically just won an Emmy for portraying Elizabeth I).  Though it is not the powerhouse, Oscar-lock performance that shatters perceptions and announces itself with determination, it is nevertheless a collected and well-maintained turn.

The stiff upper lip of the Royal Family really is carried across well in this regard.  James Cromwell’s Prince Phillip is specific in his conservatism, while the humor of Charles’s paranoia provides a nice balance.

As Prime Minister Tony Blair, Michael Sheen does a capable job of conveying a political figure who would become increasingly controversial himself.  Frears’s film hits a thunderous note in that light during a coda in which Elizabeth looks Blair square in the eye and tells him his country will turn on him, too, one day, “Quite suddenly, and without warning.”

These are the delicate touches of meaning that go toward crafting an exemplary film.  The screenplay was penned by Peter Morgan, who also co-wrote the amazing adaptation of Kevin Macdonald’s “The Last King of Scotland.”  His work comes as a result of extensive interviews and information from discreet, informed sources inside the momentous event.

Helen Mirren in The QueenStephen Frears does what he is best at in “The Queen.”  He steps aside and lets the story tell it self.  He has always been what I consider a “screenwriter’s director,” as he seems ever capable of letting the writer’s words play on the screen as they should.  He never leaves a fingerprint, other than the strong scent of competence that can be found even in his lesser efforts.

He also handles the material without fuss, getting out of dodge when the work is complete.  You’ll never find a Frears film meandering or losing itself, and that’s a trait most directors never exhibit with such consistency.

Though it revolves around an event that occurred nine years ago, and prior to the post-9/11 environment we endure today, “The Queen” is very much a current piece of filmmaking.  It is about the necessity for a leader to be in touch with his or her people.  It is about respecting tradition while understanding the need to extinguish it all the same.  It is about finding a balance and, if not maintaining that balance, at the very least striving for it at all costs.

“The Queen” could be seen as quite applicable to our current domestic political environment, or it could simply be enjoyed as an airy, pleasant endeavor with no frills.  But isn’t it the best of cinema that finds <em>that</em> balance?

1 Comment Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

1 response so far

  • 1 7-29-2008 at 2:28 pm

    Chad said...

    Just saw this last week and while I’d consider it a two star film at best, I’m moved to comment for one reason alone. James Cromwell. He gives easily the second worst performance I’ve ever seen from an Oscar nominee, closley nipping on the heels of Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential. Although the trailer indicates he might be giving himself and Kim another run for their money in W.