I can’t say ‘The Queen’ particularly inspired me in any sort of way. It was a well-made drama with some nicely-placed humour, but it was also a lot like watching a very average soap-opera. It comes as little surprise it was nominated for Oscar’s – it steers clear of genre sensibilities, deals with the upper-crust, and has a leading performance from someone imitating a famous historical figure. In effect, Oscar gold.
Not that I can fault Helen Mirren who deserves her Academy Award for best performance. Her portrayal of the Queen is mannered and at times amusing. Yet, putting the royal family into a drama about tragedy and loss is both over-sentimentalising a relic that doesn’t deserve such attention, and caricaturing famed figures whose lives are already constructs of media derision and, at times, fascination. It’s most telling that Alistair Campbell’s scorn and egocentric asides are the most truthful and believable attributes of a film that first asks its audience to suspend their disbelief, and then asks us to suspend our disbelief for the over-privileged, out-of-date, out-of-touch royal family. When it comes to the second part, it becomes increasingly difficult and awfully easy to find ‘oneself’ shouting words like ‘robots’ and ‘who are ya’ at the screen.
I did enjoy Frears cynical approach however. Tony Blair having to blackmail the Queen to come out of hiding (I’m paraphrasing but it was something like: ‘Hey, Liz, the public hate you, they want you to show your fake smile on TV pretending to care. Can you do it please, so that at least I look good?’). The idea that both the tabloid press and public attitude is fickle and indeterminate is particularly well-handled. However, he doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know – sensationalism, conflict, death, and division, sells papers and fuels public attention. Most of all, when the bandwagon starts rolling, we’re all ready to jump on, push, or chase frantically behind.
I’ve heard some commentators praise the film for not resorting to caricature but this seems blinded by the fact no one, at least anyone beyond the Queen herself and the closest family members, know exactly what she’s like or what went on. Her persona is based on public performance and tradition. What we know of her is nothing more than the construct built by her public relations advisors. The film is nothing more than a fictional tale weaved around a high-concept, high-impact premise. Therefore, what we get is a sort of Chinese whisper of royal family etiquette.
Writer Peter Morgan weaves the characters to his own whim, flirting with parody and taking obvious liberties to tell the story. The script is largely uninspired, resorting to obvious narrative characterisations to provide the film with much needed drama. Prince Charles is the wimp who thinks he’s going to get shot, he doesn’t know what to do but sides with Blair’s idea of putting a brave public face on proceedings, something the Queen is decidedly against. Prince Philip cannot grasp the public outcry, nor does he show any compassion or emotion, while Blair is only tentative at first, in trying to tempt the Queen to his way of thinking. It’s all quite tidy for a dramatic narrative but when you see the Queen mother with her daughter, Philip, and Charles, having a mid-afternoon conversation about the underlings (read: public), you are left with two things in mind. One, is that it doesn’t seem possible that this ever happens, although who is really to know. And two, these ‘important’ bastions of the monarchy and British tradition are really being used by an over-zealous writer who couldn’t think of a more restrained way of depicting the story. Essentially, it’s a soap opera with a reality of the Queen as fake as her real life public image.
In many ways, you’ve got to take ‘The Queen’ for what it is. A middle-of-the-road drama that takes no chances, depicting a British public in transition and a monarchy dealing with an unusual problem there seems no precedence of. As filmmaking goes, it ticks many of the right boxes, interspersing real life footage of Princess Diana’s final months with re-enactments of the car crash that killed her, and the media’s response afterward. We see Tony Blair’s first meetings with the Queen (in what turns out to be one of the film’s finer moments: a nervous Tony Blair is introduced to ‘Her Majesty’ and, having being told not to turn their backs on her, Blair and wife Cherie back out the room like lemmings sent to slaughter), and the family’s retreat to Balmoral. Again, Frears is rather cynical, even sadistic, as he reasons the royal family’s hiding as a way to protect Diana’s young sons from media intrusion and public gaze – a media and public they couldn’t give two hoots about when it doesn’t suit their needs. Later, in the face of public outrage, the royal’s put on their glum faces, take the stage, and play us like the fools they think we are.
However, Mirren’s performance is, in many ways, the reason the film is worth watching in the first place. She commands the screen with little fuss, seemingly infusing the effect the real Queen appears to have on people when she meets them. Mirren has an elegant grace that demands authority and a sense of prestige. The make-up, costume, and production design are all superb, making for a very identifiable, and lasting, image.
Yet the cosy style of the film is only a ‘bells and whistles’ detraction from the shallowness it encapsulates. The warmest thing about ‘The Queen’ is the Paparazzi’s flash bulbs, everything else is damn cold.
Cast and Crew:
Dir. Stephen Frears;
screenplay by Peter Morgan;
starring Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell