Sunday 28 October 2018

Movie Review: The Queen (2006)

A royal family drama inspired by events in the days following the death of Princess Diana, The Queen is an exceptional study of leadership in conflict.

In May 1997, young and energetic Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) is elected as Britain's new Prime Minister. His first meeting with Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) is rather stiff. On August 31, the enormously popular Diana, Princess of Wales, the former wife of the Queen's son Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), is killed in a car crash in Paris.

With Blair eloquently eulogizing Diana as the People's Princess, a great outpouring of public grief follows, most visible through an ever-growing sea of condolence flowers placed at the Buckingham Palace gates.The Royal family decide to remain at their Balmoral summer residence, and the Queen refuses to acknowledge Diana's death in any way. Behind the scenes Charles prods Blair to intervene, but egged on by her gruff husband Prince Philip (James Cromwell) and the equally out of touch Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms), the Queen will not easily be swayed by Blair's charms.

Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears, The Queen is a fictionalized account of what turned into a surprising crisis for the monarchy. In its entire storied history Britain had simply never dealt with the death of popular princess who had publicly shunned the royal family. Stitching together the publicly known sequence of events, The Queen infiltrates the private rooms of the royal family and the prime minister's house and offices to fill in the blanks. In the process Morgan humanizes the people behind the titles, bringing them down to the real world where exceptionally difficult decisions have to be made.

The film offers up Tony Blair wearing a Newcastle United jersey at home, listening to wife Cherie (Helen McCrory) going on about her anti-monarchist ideas and preparing family meals. And at Balmoral, Prince Philip, besides affectionately calling the Queen "cabbage", expresses 19th century haughty, classist and borderline homophobic attitudes, completely detached from modern British society. And when the Queen turns to her mother, the advice is even more stick-to-your-guns tone deaf.

The narrative is built on remarkable tension generated by two diametrically opposite impressions of the same woman. By 1997 the Queen regarded Diana as a publicity-seeking traitor and adulteress, allowing her to comfortably fall back on stiff-upper-lip traditions of grieving in private and showing no emotion. Helen Mirren is at her best embodying a woman guided by 45 years on the throne, convinced to her core she knows what is right.

Except that for the British public Diana was the commoner who tasted royal life and turned away in disgust, and used her celebrity to globally champion important social causes from AIDS treatment to the abolition of landmines. Frears uses television coverage from the days after Diana's death to capture the unprecedented outpouring of national grief.

Bridging the divide becomes a matter of national urgency. The Queen's cold stance stoked anti-monarchist sentiments, as the absent and aloof royals became a symbol of everything that went wrong in Diana's life. The Queen presents Blair and Prince Charles as much more attuned to what the nation needed, and grappling with the dilemma of changing the deep-seated opinion of the reigning monarch.

In a series of brilliantly written phone calls, Blair gathers up the courage to represent the people's wishes, the Queen listens politely and fires back with the supremacy of her traditions. The Queen is a fascinating clash of two leaders who may both be right, and the search for a climbdown free of triumphalism to help a nation grieve.

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