Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Film Review | The Queen (2006)

Royal Flush

by Thomas Delapa

All hail Helen Mirren in The Queen. As Queen Elizabeth II, Mirren gives a commanding performance that cries out for an Oscar, if not a star-studded crown.

In director Stephen Frears' uncommonly fine docudrama, we're transported to the court of the Queen of England in 1997, during the upheaval surrounding the death of Princess Diana. Playing opposite the queen as loyal foil is Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), the newly elected Labor Prime Minister.

Mixing People magazine and Shakespearean people, Peter Morgan's juicy script aims to please, but it does so with appropriate pomp and circumstance. Bows and curtsies are in order for Frears' superbly directed cast, from Mirren and Sheen to American actor James Cromwell as Prince Phillip and Helen McCrory as Blair's cheeky wife, Cherie.

Frears begins his stately procession in May 1997 with the election of "Just call me Tony" Blair and his gingerly arrival at Balmoral Castle to receive the official blessing of the queen. Though the queen views her role in a constitutional monarchy as one to "advise and warn" the government, the events of the subsequent months flip the positions. With the shocking, paparazzi-caused death of Diana in a Paris auto accident, it is the House of Windsor that teeters on the brink of collapse. Following the 1996 divorce of Diana from Prince Charles, the royal family closed ranks, treating the former Princess of Wales like a pauper. Cherie Blair is more blunt: The queen "hated her guts."

If the clash between old and new is at the gilded heart of Frears' drama, Mirren provides its blue-blooded pulse. Never just an impersonation—though Mirren does that with aplomb—her performance grants the queen a heart and soul, however rooted they are in the musty Victorian era. Appalled at the public outpouring of grief at the death of the "peoples' princess," the queen is assuredly not amused. Leading with her stiff upper lip in the Brit tradition, the queen insists that Diana be mourned "quietly, with dignity."

Secluded at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, the royal family goes into a siege mode befitting Macbeth at Dunsinane. Prince Philip, fuming with snobbish disdain toward his people, would rather be hunting. Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), acutely aware of his sinking image, timidly makes requests of his mum to honor Diana in death.

Considering the princely exchanges between Mirren and Sheen (who previously played Blair on British TV), The Queen ascends to greatness in its quietest moments. In one of Morgan's invented scenes, Elizabeth is dumbstruck by the sight of a regal 14-point stag on her estate. That sobering moment is bettered by the queen's humbling trip to Diana's former palace, as a bow to public outcry. In both scenes, the silence evokes a touching sense of majesty.

Ultimately, it is Blair, not the queen, who provides the London bridge between modernity and tradition. Initially, he brashly sees the queen as a dinosaur, fit only for a wax museum. But it is Blair who brilliantly maneuvers his queen into a face-saving move that may have also saved the monarchy from dissolution. Blair's compromise perhaps gives an insight into his rash (some say, toady) expedience vis-a-vis his decision to ally with America in the Iraq War.

Given Frears' previous populist-minded films (like Dirty Pretty Things), it's not surprising that he'd paint an unflattering portrait of the royal family. But with Dame Helen on the throne in The Queen, one thing is for sure: She rules.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly, 10/19/06

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