"...minor but pleasant crowd-pleasing film..."

Back Stage at the Windsor

(100606) "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown," goes the Shakespeare quotation that opens The Queen, Stephen Frears's commanding docudrama — one of the year's best films — of a royal clash between the privileged, the political and the public.

Taken from Henry IV, Part II, the passage aptly describes the discomfiture of Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren, magnificently), as she belatedly realizes she has lost touch with the British people, who mourn the death of Princess Diana more than she had imagined or considered seemly. Yet there's another line from the Bard that better suits the temper of this tug between the Crown and the common. It's from the moment in King Lear when the Fool is advising what to do in the event of a runaway monarch: "Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following it."

In the instance of the Paris car-crash death of Diana, Princess of Wales, on Aug. 31, 1997, the "wheel" of rigid regal protocol spun out of control from the moment news broke of Diana's untimely passing at age 36. The immediate reaction of the Queen, who is depicted in Frears's account being rudely roused from slumber at her Balmoral Castle retreat in Scotland, is to do the least possible, in as dignified and private a manner as possible. "She's not an HRH (Her Royal Highness)," the Queen sniffs, wrinkling her nose and adjusting her glasses at the unhappy memory of the nettlesome woman recently divorced by her son Prince Charles (Alex Jennings). The Queen even questions the use of the royal jet to whisk Charles to the Paris hospital where Diana's body rests, fearing press quibbles about extravagance.

Elizabeth II would do better to consider the consequences of appearing to be mean in a time of national grief. For reasons that defy her strict sense of logic and propriety, the people of Britain — and indeed people around the world — react to Diana's death with a degree of emotion not witnessed in recent memory. Most galling of all is the thought that Diana, so savvy about her image, is having the last laugh.

The swell of public opinion isn't lost upon Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), recently elected in a landslide ballot on a sentiment of "modernizing" Britain. His attitudes don't square with the Royal Family's 1,000-year-old hereditary entitlement, or the Queen's notion of proper etiquette. Blair hails Diana as "the People's Princess," and wants a massive state funeral, even though strict royal protocol has no precedence for such a tribute.

In a fit of pique that surprises even some close family members and aides, the Queen refuses to get involved in the escalating grief for Diana, or even to make a public statement about it. She is supported in this by her stone-faced husband Prince Philip (redoubtable U.S. actor James Cromwell, affecting a convincing British accent) and the Queen Mother (Sylvia Sims). The royal antipathy toward Diana isn't without justification. Charles makes a rueful remark about "two Diana’s," the one he and his family knows well and dislikes, and the one the public knows only as a celebrity icon but adores nonetheless.

Attempts by Blair to bring Elizabeth II around are met by frosty rebukes from a monarch who believes she's seen it all before in her nearly 50-year reign. She is smugly confident the masses will soon come to their senses and she suspects Blair's noble intentions include no small amount of self-interest.

But an extraordinary series of events conspire to turn sudden accident into something approaching Shakespearean tragedy. Fleet Street tabloids fan public sentiment into flames of dissent against the monarchy. The Queen is depicted as cold and uncaring by the same press that days before had damned Diana as a selfish and reckless party girl. The Queen learns, to her shock and dismay, that doing the correct thing isn't necessarily synonymous with doing the right thing.

Several delicious ironies are at play in The Queen, in which Frears masterfully combines archival news footage with stellar performances from an outstanding cast, led by Mirren in a title role that demands Oscar glory. The first irony is that a director of Frears's proletarian bent, who has spent a career documenting the common bloke in movies like The Van, The Snapper and Dirty Pretty Things, should so deftly render a sympathetic portrayal of a monarch in crisis, as The Queen very much is.

Then there is the incongruity of Blair, presented with fire and grace by Sheen, who suddenly finds himself in the position of defending an institution he doesn't admire. At the time of Diana's death, he was working on a speech calling on Britons to "make privilege something for the many, not the few." Yet he respects the Queen, even though she treats him as a bumbling rube in their first meeting after his election victory.

But the greatest of ironies in the film is the sight of a woman once thought to be a tribune of progress suddenly realizing that she is a symbol of the outmoded. The first monarch of the television age, who opened the doors of Buckingham Palace to TV cameras and who popularized the crowd-pleasing tradition called the "royal walkabout," finds herself for the first time on the downward tilt of public opinion. She has become the great wheel that crushes all hangers-on.

Mirren is a marvel of understatement as the beleaguered monarch, so firm in her resolve and so reluctant to accept the notion of noblesse oblige. She has mastered Elizabeth II's measured gait and the smile that refuses to acknowledge foolishness, especially when it involves matters of protocol.

It is to Frears's great credit, and to the wonderful screenplay by Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland), that this royal predicament isn't spun for infantile laughs or cheap shots, as would undoubtedly happen in many American productions of a similar crisis within the U.S. presidency. The director and screenwriter may play to popular prejudice — their depiction of Charles as a simpering coward and Cherie Blair as spiteful seem a trifle unfair — and they have had to rely on a fair bit of informed conjecture on the backstage tea-pouring, martini-sipping and sycophant-shuffling of the royal household.

There is a certain fairy tale aspect to the story, which Alexandre Desplat's music underscores with passages that cross-cut the high drama of tragedy with a carefree lilt — heard often in the Balmoral scenes — that seem more appropriate to a children's fable. But Frears and Morgan are respectful to all sides of the argument and they're generally scrupulous to the known facts of the Diana affair.

There are flights of fancy taken by the script. The main one concerns a solitary visit the Queen makes to the vast hills of the Balmoral estate, there to tearfully confront her misgivings, like Lear lost in the wilderness. She comes upon a magnificent stag that her husband has been relentlessly stalking, despite her plea for discretion ("No guns, Philip, it is Sunday."). Her affection toward the stag, and the destiny that awaits it, are contrasted with her lack of warmth toward Diana, whom she truly believes betrayed the trust and generosity of her family.

There is another moment, possibly apocryphal but ringing absolutely true in light of Blair's recent involuntary retirement announcement, in which the Queen reminds a grinning PM that he, too, will eventually feel the sting of public censure. "One day, quite suddenly and without warning, the same thing will happen to you," she tells him, punctuating her prophecy with a look that could shatter the Crown jewels. So will we all have our comeuppances, sooner or later and deserved or not. In that certainty, as The Queen so eloquently demonstrates, we are all subjects of destiny, the cruelest monarch of all.

Directed by:    Stephen Frears
Written by:    Screenplay by Peter Morgan (III)
Starring:    Helen Mirren, James Cromwell, Michael Sheen
Released:    09/29/06 (USA)
Length:    103 minutes
Rating:    Rated PG-13 for brief, strong language

THE QUEEN © 2006 Miramax Films
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