Simon Dillon reviews the film
First, I'd better come clean and admit I'm rabidly pro-monarchy, so naturally I approached director Stephen Frears' film about the time following the death of Princess Diana with a certain degree of trepidation. I feared I would find all manner of cheap shots sucking up to the public perception of the time that the royal family were somehow showing insufficient grief at the untimely demise of a woman who was - frankly - no saint.
Thankfully, I needn't have worried. The Queen is an absolute delight. Helen Mirren's performance is Oscar worthy; noble, dignified, witty, wise, and melancholy. She provides a flawless portrait of a royal whose universal popularity was, for a few days in September 1997, somewhat dented by a people who could not understand why she was not out mourning in public. Yet this film clearly shows her devotion to her grandchildren first, plus her general selflessness and insistence on a stiff upper lip that inexplicably caused this public feeling (fuelled no doubt by the harsh tabloid headlines of the time).
Although Mirren rightly dominates the film, there is excellent support also from James Cromwell as the Duke of Edinburgh. I for one was pleased the filmmakers didn't resort to cliché and depict him as a buffoon, but instead show him as genuinely caring and supportive of his wife (without skimping on more brash, un-PC elements of his character). Elsewhere, Michael Sheen reprises his role as Tony Blair (he also portrayed him in the Channel 4 TV one-off The Deal) to great effect, Sylvia Syms makes an excellent Queen Mother, Alex Jennings is disturbingly convincing as a Prince Charles worried about being shot, and Helen McCrory and Mark Bazeley are wonderfully odious as Cherie Blair and Alistair Campbell respectively.
Speaking of which, one of the many delights of this film is the way in which New Labour are (rightly) portrayed as scheming, manipulating, deeply unpleasant people in stark contrast to their dignified counterparts in the palace. Showing the royals truly do belong to another era and set of values, even the set design reflects this. In one scene where Tony Blair talks on the phone to the palace, behind the Queen are pristine mahogany shelves with beautiful old books, whilst Blair has behind him an obviously flat-pack bookshelf with all modern books. It is such an absolute joy watching him being put in his place by a real leader that I sincerely hope similar scenes occurred in real life.
Yet Tony Blair merely comes off as opportunistic in contrast to Alistair Campbell and Cherie Blair, who both get a well-deserved kicking. Renowned for her outspokenly republican views, Cherie spouts off all the usual nonsense about the royals not paying tax and costing a fortune - neither of which is true, since they do pay some tax, and the revenue generated by them for the economy plus their charity work more than covers the cost. In addition, the film cleverly refutes any question of the royal family being overly indulgent by showing the Queen's insistence on eating left-overs, reluctance to charter royal flights, and so forth. As for Alistair Campbell, we see him capitalizing on the public's grief over Princess Diana by trying to make Blair and New Labour as popular as possible at the Queen's expense. His relentless cynicism is such that even Blair rails against him in the latter part of the film.
I must also commend the filmmakers for sensitively choosing not to show Prince William or Harry in anything other than long shots, and to not give them any dialogue. Whatever one's feelings for Princess Diana, she was their mother and as such to portray them as anything other than children who have experienced a horrible tragedy would have been wrong. It is this view that is also taken by the Queen who tries to protect them by ordering the television be taken out of the nursery and making sure they don't see newspapers.
A lovely scene late in the film shows the Queen walking alone in the Balmoral grounds where she comes across a stag that is being stalked by hunters. Moved by the animal's plight, she tries to shoo it away. Her sympathy is clearly intended as a metaphor for the way she feels stalked by the press and politicians who think she should be showing more grief, and as such it provides the emotional core of the film. Immediately before this moment, the Queen begins to cry quietly, but Frears rightly does not show her face. Directorially, this is the correct decision, as the Queen believes in grieving privately, before soldiering on. Her simple dignity is ultimately shown to be at odds with the modern world, and the Queen wonders about abdication because she might be out of touch with her subjects. But some advice from the Queen Mother reinforces that God has made her Queen for a reason and that she has a responsibility to her subjects to remain on the throne until she dies. Despite the cynicism of these times, that is a view I wholeheartedly endorse and agree with.
All in all, this is an excellent film, easily one of the year's best, and provides a remarkable yet non-sensationalist glimpse into the intriguing world of the royal family. Above all, Helen Mirren's career-best performance merits it must-see status. I apologise for taking so long to getting round to see it, so try and catch it in cinemas now, before it vanishes.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.
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