Monday, October 16, 2006
The reaction of the British people to their royal family is “very complicated,” said director Stephen Frears in the Q&A following The Queen at this year’s New York Film Festival -- but it nearly always starts with ridicule. “The most extraordinary thing about this film,” he said, “is that it takes [the royals] seriously. That’s sort of the shocking part.”
For American audiences, the shocker may be that Princess Di, who plays a central role in Frears’ movie, is not its heroine. Instead, in the news footage that’s judicially sprinkled throughout The Queen, she comes off as a duplicitous self-promoter who used the media like a samurai uses his sword, burnishing her own legend while slicing her enemies to ribbons. Even that coy downward gaze she favored looks premeditated after Frears catches her slipping a camera a sly gaze of complicity and freezes the frame for a moment, burning her knowing smirk into the mind’s retina.
The Queen starts the day Di was driven to her death by a pack of paparazzi. Though already separated from Prince Charles, she is firmly established in the public mind as “the people’s princess,” as Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) puts it in a televised tribute shortly after her death. Blair has just been elected in a landslide vote by besotted voters eager to see the young Turk “modernize” stodgy old Britain. He cements his prodigious popularity with his response to Di’s death, his American-style emotionalism matching the mood of the crowd that was gathering outside Buckingham Palace.
Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) becomes a poster child for the stiff-upper-lip style that’s free-falling out of favor in the fading empire. Insisting that Di’s death was “a private matter,” the queen retreats to the royal estate in Balmoral, husband Philip (James Cromwell), son Charles (Alex Jennings), and grandsons in tow. Tone deaf about the changing mood of “the people,” she’s concerned only with shielding her grieving grandsons from the prying public eye and observing royal protocol – which is to say, doing nothing much about Diana’s death, since the lapsed princess was no longer technically a royal.
But “the people” will have none of that. The change that apparently took place in the British soul sometime during the Thatcher years manifests itself in the form of an enormous crowd that gathers for Diana, layering thousands of bouquets outside the palace gates, sleeping and weeping in the street outside.
Its voice amplified by the tabloid papers, which call on the queen to “show us you care,” the mob’s as ugly as the one that called for Marie Antoinette’s head. And this one threatens to do away with its queen as well – albeit just the role, not the person. But Elizabeth reads its mood in the nick of time and saves the monarchy by delivering the public gestures the crowd demands.
By giving us a ringside seat at the reenactment, The Queen lets us imagine what those gestures must have cost. From the queen’s vantage point, Di’s celebrity-studded funeral looks outre. Even the bouquets outside the palace turn poisonous when she does her public viewing, getting close enough to read the hateful notes blaming her and her family for Di’s unhappy life and death.
Frears best movies – including My Beautiful Laundrette, The Snapper, and Dirty Pretty Things – have been absorbingly realistic tales of working-class Brits struggling to break free from some deadly socioeconomic trap, like flies stuck in a spiderweb. His heroine this time is no working-class hero, but this queen is just as trapped as her subjects.
Like The Devil Wears Prada, Peter Morgan’s script subverts the usual narrative, flipping a story about a vulnerable young heroine abused by a ruthless and powerful older woman on its head. With her thick ankles, sensible shoes, and helmet hair, Mirren’s queen is an unlikely star. Worse yet for this emotive age, she’s a mistress of minimalism, making an art of hiding her feelings in public -- and every part of her life is public, even the bed from which she’s awoken in the middle of the night by an apologetic aide bearing news of Di’s death.
Mirren was riveting as the queen’s fiery ancestor, Elizabeth I, in an HBO miniseries last year. Working on a much smaller and grayer canvas, she makes this dowdy Elizabeth every bit as compelling. “As an actor, you find yourself falling in love with your character, no matter who it is,” she said at the film festival. “And that happened to me. I ended up absolutely falling in love with the queen – which is very embarrassing. It’s very uncool.”
She makes us love her too, showing us the unshowy virtues that make her a good leader. A member of the World War II generation whose motto might be “never complain, never explain,” Mirren’s Elizabeth is unfailingly dignified, fair, and respectful of others. “Duty first, self second,” she says to the prime minister in one of the private audiences between the two that bookend the story. “That’s how I was brought up. That’s all I’ve ever known.”
At least in the Western world, where we’re all supposed to be the center of our own cults of personality, that attitude is a thing of the past. The Queen lets us see what we’ve lost in letting it go.