In a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, a mother who lost her son in battle stated: “I hope your sons die!” Whether this was justifiable can be debated, but such animosity has and always will exist. I’ve never been able to muster up enough feeling to hate any American President, though I don’t feel sorry for any of them, either. The job is so extraordinarily complex that I’m fairly certain that I would as badly bungle it up as anyone who sat in office if we happened to be so unlucky that I would get elected. Every official act, every legislation signed, every veto submitted and every act of war, for better or worse, was previously argued over and supported and opposed at the same time by the best and brightest in our universities, on the floors of Congress and the Senate, and by millions of our citizens. Our leaders and especially our heads of state are the butt of every joke. However well meaning they may be in their actions, there is no way that they are going to get it right every time. But as there is such a thing as free will, these individuals brought it upon themselves by seeking office.
In England, with both a Prime Minister and a Monarchy, the situation is even more complex. Ever since the House of Hanover decided back in the 1700s that they really didn’t want to rule but still wanted to partake in the spectacle of being royalty, England has had a Monarchy whose significance is primarily symbolic and who have somehow managed to subsist while living in a castle on a 44,000 acre estate at tax payer expense. Thus, so long as they conformed to tradition and didn’t do anything silly like Edward VIII, who was forced to abdicate because he wanted to marry an American woman (think of the stink if he had wanted to marry a man), it appeared that they would live very well. This, of course, changed when it became known that Charles marriage to Diana was headed for trouble.
The Queen is a movie concerning the royal family’s reaction to the death of Princess Diana. The family’s (and especially Queen Elizabeth II played by Helen Mirren) failure to publicly express their grief gave the press enough material to stop covering other stories for a number of weeks. Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), the newly elected and “modernist” Prime Minister, watched his public approval improve by several points because his speechwriter was perceptive enough to insert the words “the people’s princess” into the public statement that Blair gave upon Princess Diana’s death. Blair comes across as the most honorable character in the entire cast. He’s aware that the Queen has made a gigantic public relations gaff by not stepping forward sooner to voice her grief, and he’s fair-minded enough to give the Queen four recommendations on how to remedy the problem. He also feels sympathy for the Queen’s plight because he feels both the public and the press are bullying her into making a response, which would go totally against the Queen’s sense of decorum. To begin with, the Queen is receiving some really bad advice from her husband, Prince Philip (James Cromwell) and the Queen Mum (Sylvia Syms), who no longer accept Diana as royalty since the divorce and who are not in favor of altering tradition to please the public fancy. Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) is perfectly willing to allow his mother to “take the bullet” (as Tony Blair puts it) so long as his own public image is not tarnished. (Some of the best scenes in this movie are the conversations between Charles and Elizabeth where the son comes off as the perfect weasel.) So the Queen swallows her pride and takes the advice that Blair has given her, and in the end manages to somewhat save her reputation. In the final scene, we see a very human and vulnerable Queen speaking to Tony Blair about what just happened. In the end, she proves to be the perceptive one because she warns Blair that what happened to her with public reaction would sooner or later also occur to him.
Director Stephen Frears should have used the following disclaimer at the beginning of this movie: “All characters and incidents in this movie are purely fictional, and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” There is simply no way that Frears or Peter Morgan, who wrote the screenplay, could possibly have known what went on behind the scenes at Buckingham Palace. Outside of the Queen, the rest of the royal family is presented as being so snobbish and out of touch, that it seems embarrassing that they should receive any stipend from the government at all. And Blair’s own wife (played by Helen McCrory), with her anti-monarchist feelings, is saved only by her sauciness (an adjective I apologize for using) from being a gloating monster. It seems ironic that a movie that goes so far to express its empathy for the personal struggles that the Queen went through at this time, could be so uncharitable to just about everyone else in the movie outside of Tony Blair.
Besides this, I can find little fault with The Queen. The movie does five things extremely well: (1) it ably and believably reproduces the hype that followed the death of Diana; (2) the movie never condescends to its subject by failing to grasp the significance of a monarchy in England; (3) like the movie The Apostle did with the subject of evangelism, the director has us look at the unsavory aspects of a monarchy from a different angle; (4) despite the fudging about what occurred at the palace, the movie and its 97 minute length does not try to portray this story as an epic and this makes the movie feel unassuming and humble; and (5), most importantly, the ability to show the growth of a stiff and stoic individual into someone the audience in the end likes was remarkable storytelling. Helen Mirren is a tremendous actress who never overplays her part. We know from her expressions and change of moods exactly what she is thinking in every scene. We learn along the way that Elizabeth, besides being stiff and proper, has a love for nature and her dogs. At one point, she gets out of the vehicle that she’s driving, because it’s obvious that she would rather walk with her dogs than be stuck inside with her odious son, Charles. At another point, she sees a beautiful 14-point buck, and though she tries her best not to overtly show it, she really does grieve when she goes to view it after learning it had been shot by a neighbor. We also see that she’s the only one in the movie still living who seemed to care about the feelings of her two grandsons. We learn that she’s earthy (another overused if less objectionable adjective) in that she likes to walk and also understands how automobiles operate because she was trained in mechanics back during World War II. We come to appreciate the self-discipline she is able to maintain in face of the daily slander she has to endure during this media circus. And we see a character that at the age of seventy still manages to grow.
While writing this review and after a week and a half of another kind of media onslaught, I learned that news of Anna Nicole Smith’s death has been replaced on the front pages by other shocking news of Britney Spears shaving her head. So long as this is considered big news, the critics of the British Monarchy will have it all wrong. It’s not just that we (meaning western civilization) have an uninformed electorate. It almost seems as if there have been illiterate people for ages that have had better decision-making skills than the average newspaper reader. It’s the need to be dazzled and to believe that our lives would be totally uninteresting without a “people’s princess” to give it some meaning that makes the formation of some sort of aristocracy seem absolutely essential – and to show how sad our lives truly are. Shortly after Princess Diana died, we also learned of the death of Mother Teresa. The fact that the coverage was so disproportionate in favor of the Princess when one considered that the other individual devoted her entire life to serving the poor, only made a handful of people rethink their priorities.
The Queen is one of five movies to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and one of only two (the other being The Departed) that I would consider a worthy choice. Letters from Iwo Jima, Babel and Little Miss Sunshine are not altogether bad movies but we could be doing much better.
© Robert S. Miller 2007