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Royal Roles the Subject in Engaging Queen

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • 2007 4 Apr
  • COMMENTS
Royal Roles the Subject in Engaging <i>Queen</i>

DVD Release Date:  April 24, 2007
Theatrical Release Date:  September 30, 2006 (limited)
Rating:  PG-13 (for profanity and adult situations)
Genre:  Drama/Biopic
Run Time: 121 min.
Director:  Stephen Frears
Actors:  Helen Mirren, James Cromwell, Michael Sheen, Alex Jennings, Helen McCrory, Sylvia Syms, Roger Allam, Tim McMullan

Most of us remember that fateful day in August 1997 when Princess Diana died – the massive crowds outside Buckingham Palace, the endless media coverage and finally, at the end of a very long week, the solemn funeral cortege to Westminster Abbey.  And who could forget the site of Diana’s sons walking behind her flower-draped casket – or that heartbreaking envelope upon which was scrawled, ever so simply, the word “Mummy?”

We all heard reports about the royal family’s reaction to Diana’s death.  As Americans, we couldn’t fully grasp the meaning of Queen Elizabeth’s stony silence during the days leading up to her funeral, however.  The royals’ failure to make a statement about Diana, their refusal to fly the royal flag and their desire for a private funeral all led to a public outcry that reverberated throughout England, sending a powerful message about the radical disconnect that existed between the monarchy and the people.

These are the issues that screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland) and director Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things) tackle in this excellent film featuring 2006 Oscar-winner Helen Mirren.  Beginning with Diana’s car crash in Paris and ending with her funeral, it focuses on the political tug-of-war between Elizabeth II, queen of England, and the country’s newly-elected prime minister, Tony Blair.  Mirren plays Elizabeth, a woman who ascended to the throne at the age of 26, during a bygone era when the monarchy was expected to display little or no emotion.  Michael Sheen plays the heroic young Blair, a naïve but earnest Labor politician who has vowed to “modernize” England.

Faced with Elizabeth’s detached response to Diana’s death, Blair counsels her to make a statement.  The queen refuses, and instead takes her family to Balmoral Castle and Estate, their 50,000 acre Scottish Highlands home.  There, they remain sequestered for the better part of the week, as the growing national crisis eventually forces Blair to insist that Elizabeth take action.  Meanwhile, Blair’s popularity soars as he gives his historic speech which coined the phrase, “the people’s princess.” 

The film unfolds slowly and without a dramatic plot arc, taking us behind the scenes at Buckingham Palace and Balmoral.  We can’t know, of course, how realistic either the décor or the dialogue is, but it’s fun to imagine that we are, indeed, peeking behind this venerable curtain.  And, while we can’t help but shake our heads at the queen’s decisions, we also sympathize with her.  She’s angry at Diana, and understandably so.  Though a lovely, compassionate woman, Diana was hardly a saint.  And her highly-touted charitable efforts were, after all, part of her job – the very thing she signed on for when she married Prince Charles.  

At the end The Queen, we hear Elizabeth’s reasoning, in a brilliant monologue that contrasts her era of manners, chivalry and dignity with the celebrity-driven, talk-show confessing world of Diana.

“I’ve never been hated like that before,” Elizabeth says to Blair.  “Nowadays people want glamour and tears – the grand performance.  I’m not very good at that.  I never have been.  I prefer to keep my feelings to myself.  And, foolishly, I believed that was what the people wanted from their queen – not to make a fuss nor wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve.  Duty first, self second.  That’s how I was brought up.  That’s all I’ve ever known.”

Technically, all of Elizabeth’s decisions conformed to British protocol.  The flag above Buckingham Place, for example – which caused such an outcry – was not the national flag, but the royals’ personal flag, which flew only when the family was in residence – and never at half-mast.  Also, no royal had come out to greet the public since the end of WWII.  And yet, they remained completely clueless about how all this was being perceived.  As Blair utters, “Will someone save these people from themselves?”  That someone, of course, will be him.

James Cromwell plays Prince Philip, with an excellent accent and acting to match.  Alex Jennings is the hapless Prince Charles, intimidated by his mother yet loyal to Diana’s memory – and their children – despite reports to the contrary.  Helen McCrory is Blair's anti-monarchist wife, and Sylvia Syms is the ever-present Queen Mother, who is desperately worried that Diana’s death will upstage her own.

Is it time for a change?  Should the monarchy be abolished?  England has been asking that question for decades.  And although The Queen will naturally appeal more to English audiences, those with a penchant for history will enjoy it as well.  It’s the perfect opportunity to discuss the role of our leaders, too.  Do they exist to lead or serve us?  And how might that look, during our times of national crises?  This well-made, amusing and thoroughly engaging film nudges us to wonder. 

AUDIENCE:  Mature teens and up

DVD EXTRAS:

  • Audio commentary with director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan
  • “The Making of The Queen"
  • Audio commentary with British historian and royal expert Robert Lacey, author of Majesty

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Mild drinking in several scenes and one brief reference to sleeping pills.
  • Language/Profanity:  A few mild and/or “British” profanities.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  Indirect references to adultery, brief photos of Diana kissing Dodi al-Fayed, brief mention of “homosexuals.”
  • Violence:  Footage leading up to deadly car wreck which is then cut; documentary footage of funeral cortege; several shots of a dead stag.