Sunday, September 17, 2006

Review - The Queen

Where were you on August 30th 1997? The day Princess Diana died in a car crash has become a milestone day in recent British history, the day a nation mourned not only the loss of a princess, but also the loss of a celebrity and icon. The momentous seven days which followed saw the country turn itself inside-out with grief, an unprecedented outpouring of emotion which brought life in this country to a standstill. Millions of inconsolable people flocked to London, mountains of wreaths were laid at Buckingham palace, and Elton John made some adjustments to his Candle in the Wind. It was a strange, strange time.

But during all the hullabaloo, there were a few notable people who were conspicuous by their absence. The Royal Family were staying in Scotland at the time of Diana's death, and while London was being overwhelmed with mourners, they refused to break protocol and make any public declarations on the matter. As the days went on, the silence from the Royals was deafening. Newspapers openly demanded some reaction from The Queen, the public were dismayed that there was no flag at half-mast over the palace, and national confidence in the Monarchy was being eroded by the day. While new Prime Minister Tony Blair took advantage of the nation's mood to cement his popularity, the Royal Family was facing its biggest crisis in years.

Diana's death, and the craziness which followed it, are the focus of Stephen Frears' hugely enjoyable The Queen. Scripted by Peter Morgan, the film successfully recreates the weird atmosphere which enveloped Britain at that time, and it allows us a peek behind the scenes to give us an idea of what exactly was going on in the corridors of power when some tough decisions were being made.

Frears opens the film on May 2nd, on the day Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) came to power with a landslide victory. The Queen (Helen Mirren) makes no attempt to disguise her suspicion at Blair's talk of 'modernisation', and their first meeting after his victory is a wonderfully tetchy encounter in which Her Majesty lets this young upstart know where he stands in no uncertain terms. But after Diana's death, modernisation quickly becomes the crux of the issue. The Queen believes in tradition, believes that things should be done a certain way, but she had never before dealt with an situation like this, and she quickly discovers that her views are completely out of touch with the mood of the nation.

By contrast, New Labour judges the prevailing atmosphere perfectly, and with Alistair Campbell (Mark Bazeley) manipulating events they manage to spin this enormous event to their advantage. The film becomes a complex battle of wills between the government and the monarchy; Blair urges The Queen to make some gesture of grief to satisfy the baying crowds, but she refuses to back down. Diana was no longer a member of The Royal Family, she reasons, why should this be anything more than a private matter? Why should she drop everything and rush to London before she has tended to the well-being of her grandsons? She is supported by The Duke of Edinburgh (James Cromwell), but Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) disagrees with her refusal to compromise, and he allies himself with Blair in a bid to win her round.

Both The Queen and Blair were trying to find their way through uncharted waters during this time, and Frears' reconstruction of a tense and sensitive period is smart and evocative. With judicious use of archive news footage he reminds us of the remarkable scenes which occurred around Buckingham Palace, and the splicing of the actors into this footage is smooth and effective. Frears' direction here is low-key and unobtrusive; he simply does what he can to allow Peter Morgan's gem of a screenplay to shine. He is also smart enough to realise that his cast are good enough to carry the film, and he's dead right about that.

This is by far the most intimate and audacious film portrait of a living monarch, and Helen Mirren has the intimidating task of bringing this intensely private woman to life. The Queen is depicted as strong-willed and reserved, but also witty and sarcastic on occasion; she keeps a tight rein on her emotions, and in one touching scene the film allows her to shed a few tears, but only with her back to the camera, refusing to articulate the real reason behind the incident. Mirren takes the role and works wonders with it. With a wig and a bit of padding she looks uncannily like Her Majesty, and she gives a performance which goes beyond mimicry, she breathes life into a woman we have only really seen from a distance and makes her a complex, fully-rounded human being.

Mirren will undoubtedly be in the frame when awards season comes around, but Michael Sheen's hilarious portrayal of Tony Blair deserves some recognition too. Sheen has been here before with Frears, he played Blair in the 2003 TV drama The Deal, which focused on the Prime Minister's relationship with Gordon Brown, and he reprises his role in The Queen with great relish. His Blair is bouncy, twitchy and eager-to-please, but he also possesses a keen sense of public relations and a steely determination to guide The Queen into new territory. Sheen nails the Blair mannerisms and voice, but like Mirren he generates a whole person beyond the public image. The two main characters in this power play couldn't be more different, and their central conflict is utterly compelling.

The supporting cast is brilliantly chosen too. James Cromwell is a hoot as a grouchy Prince Philip, and he gets big laughs with many of his lines, particularly when he dismisses the guest list for Diana's funeral as "a chorus line of soap stars and homosexuals”. Mark Bazeley wears a permanent smirk as a sly and sneaky Alistair Campbell, Alex Jennings adds an unexpected note of emotion to his role as Charles, and Roger Allam is excellent as The Queen's aide, whose loyalties waver when he realises the weight of public opinion is turning against the Monarchy. As well as being a smart and incisive look at the private sides of public figures, this is also one of the year's funniest films, with some lovely gags tossed into the mix. My favourite came up when Blair was told that Gordon Brown was on the telephone for him, and he replied with "tell him to hang on”. He's still waiting, Tony.

Eventually, The Queen came to London, made a speech, and life went back to normal. What The Queen gives us is a thought-provoking look at what a torrid time this must have been for the Royals. The public were quick to dismiss the Monarchy as cruel and unfeeling when they failed to put their grief on display for all to see, but who's to say they weren't suffering themselves as they experienced a seismic shift in public perception, threatening hundreds of years of tradition which their lives had been built upon?

There are a few flaws here and there, such as an occasional lapse into obvious metaphor and a clumsily handled outburst by Blair late on, but so much of the film is a triumph, and it feels churlish to quibble over minor details when we are presented with a British film of this rare quality. The Queen puts a human face on the Monarchy and tells the story in a balanced, intelligent and ultimately quite moving fashion. In their first scene together The Queen tells Blair that she has seen ten Prime Ministers come and go before him, and with Blair calling it a day next year she'll soon be able to chalk up number eleven. The Queen is still there, for better or for worse, and one can only have respect for the way she handled herself in these difficult times. As she says during the film, "this is how we do things in this country. Quietly, with dignity”.