Dir: Stephen Frears. UK2006. 97mins.
The British have been making films about their RoyalFamily almost since cinema began. What is so distinctive about Stephen Frears' brilliant new feature The Queen is that it is unfolds only a few years ago - in 1997 atthe time of Princess Diana's death - and depicts characters still living and inpower. Despite an occasional tendency toward mannerism and caricature in theearly scenes, Frears steers a deft line betweensatire and sycophancy, creating a work that is ultimately complex and moving.
Generating buzz in advanceof its world premiere in
There is clearly hugeinternational interest in the subject matter, too. Whatever its wobbles inrecent years, the British Royal Family remains a brand with immediate worldwiderecognition value while Diana's iconic status is undimmed. The Queen has pre-sold widely and will be opening the New York FilmFestival prior to its
For better or worse, theRoyal Family remains an integral part of life in
However, those who believethat this particular family and its associates are - as Helen McCrory's Cherie Blair suggests - "freeloading, emotionallyretarded nutters" - will find little to change theirminds. In the end, the debate about the relevance of the Royal Family isn'twhat the film is about. This is a detailed character study of two characters:Blair (Michael Sheen) and the Queen during a tumultuous period in both theirlives.
The Queenis the second collaboration between Frears and Morganfollowing on from The Deal, themade-for-TV drama exploring the vexed relationship between Blair and hisChancellor Gordon Brown. Again, it takes a little to get over the discordanteffect of actors playing real-life characters who are so well known.
Early on, it seems to beshaping up as a satirical comedy. We first see the Queen watching Blair's(Michael Sheen) election triumph on TV while having her portrait painted. Thereis politicking on every side and this intensifies following the death ofPrincess Diana, as Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) desperately tries to reachout to Blair and the media. The Queen herself remains aloof, cocooned from thegrowing public outcry about the perceived callousness of the monarchy on her Balmoral estate; meanwhile Blair's advisers, led byAlistair Campbell, are openly contemptuous of the Royal Family, as is his wife.Chancellor Gordon Brown doesn't feature at all but the film-makers are able toconvey the tension between him and Blair simply through the device of showingthe prime minister refuse to take one of his phone calls.
Gradually, as Blair beginsto feel sympathy for the Queen and resolves to help her out of the PR hole shehas dug for herself, the storytelling becomes far richer and more affecting.The wonder of Mirren's performance is that she isable throughout to convey her character's hauteur and sense of duty but alsoher vulnerability.
There is an emotional depth,too, to Sheen's portrayal as Blair. In TheDeal, his portrait of the prime minister sometimes felt like a very clevercaricature, rich in smarm; here, as he comes to theaid of the stricken older woman (who in some subliminal way reminds him of hismother), he is far more sympathetic.
The film-makers never losetheir sense of irony or political perspective. To Cherie, Tony's mountingadmiration for the Queen is simply history repeating itself. "At the end of theday, all Labour prime ministers go gaga for theQueen," she goads him. Nonetheless, audiences too are likely to share hissympathy. In one key scene, the Queen is shown, having reluctantly returned to
Peter Morgan's screenplaylargely avoids polemics or cheap shots and has clearly been exhaustivelyresearched. Even the most comic and intimate lines (for example, JamesCromwell's Prince Phillip telling the Queen to "move over, cabbage" as heclambers into bed) are apparently sourced, and the extensive use of archive footage(on which Power Of Nightmaresdirector Adam Curtis advised) only adds to the air of verisimilitude.
The production and costumedesign are witty and instructive. The film-makers contrast the formal luxury inwhich the Royal Family live with the Blair's cramped and untidy home. Whereasthe Queen's shelves are full of beautifully embossed old books, the Blairs' shelves heave under the weight of endlesspaperbacks.
At home, Blair is spotted ina Newcastle United football shirt whereas the Queen is seen in her familiarheadscarves. She has an army of servants while he does the washing up. PrincePhillip comes across as an avuncular but bloodthirsty old reactionary: hisreaction to the death of Diana is to propose taking her children out on themoors to kill a stag, as if a little blood sport is the best thing to keepgrief at bay.
The Queenmanages the rare feat of being fair without being bland. Neither
Pathe Renn Productions
France 3 Cinema