Going to see a movie named "The Queen" isn't the most exciting or anticipatory of propositions. The title all by itself suggests an experience that will be stuffy, dry and emotionally chillyadjectives that, luck would have it, do not describe the film in question. As directed by Stephen Frears (2000's "High Fidelity
") and written by Peter Morgan, "The Queen" is a humane and respectful drama that seamlessly mixes fact with unstrained fiction and archival footage with performed scenes in its real-life account of the week proceeding Princess Diana's tragic death. Yes, the title is as boring as can be, but if viewers are able to get past its bland moniker, they will find a dynamic and worthwhile character piece that deserves to be sought out.
Save for bookend scenes taking place months before and after the central time frame, "The Queen" attempts to document a week in the life of Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and the rest of the immediate Royal Family following the August 1997 car accident that claimed the life of Princess Diana, former spouse of Elizabeth's son, Prince Charles (Alex Jennings). Determined to uphold everything she has been taught and has known since she became the Queen of England, Elizabeth recognizes that Diana was no longer a part of the Royal Family and decides that her funeral should be a private family matter.
As an overwhelming outpouring of grief thunders across the country and world at large, harsh criticism is quickly sparked when the family opts not to speak publicly about the death of a much-loved and revered woman who, no secret to anyone, was never exactly welcomed with open arms by Charles' bloodline. Enter recently appointed Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who must find a way of acknowledging the Queen's belief codes and traditions while urging her to consider his more modern viewpoint that the common people not only expect, but also need and warrant, a public outreaching on her part.
"The Queen" incorporates indelible news footage into a dramatized storyline with effective precision, consistently being careful not to cross boundaries or exploit anyone involved in or impacted by Princess Diana's untimely death. Of course, a certain amount of controversy is to be expected, but the film, as directed by Stephen Frears, presents a warm, fair, and still tough light on what it might have been like for the Royal Family in the days leading to Diana's funeral. Loyal to the expectations of the monarchy she has been born into, the Queen is forced into reevaluating these frankly ludicrous and archaic rules if she ever hopes to have the public's trust and respect ever again. It is not that the Queen is a heartless wench, but that she is a product of a time long past and hesitant about making the leap toward opening herself up for the world to see. In depicting Queen Elizabeth II from all angles as she remains secluded with her family at her sprawling Balmoral Estate, Frears humanizes for possibly the first time this iconic figure that no one has ever really been given a chance to know on an intimate level before.
Helen Mirren (2004's "The Clearing
") disappears so convincingly into the daunting role of the title figure that it hardly seems to be an actress at all. Made up to look very much like Queen Elizabeth II, Mirren also has her voice and movements down to a near-science. Lest it sound like she is doing a great impersonation instead of a full-fledged performance, it should be noted that Mirren digs deep enough to uncover a flawed but dignified woman with a sympathetic soul. This is not a woman who chose to be Queen, but one who accepted her destiny, for better and for worse, and has dedicated her life to fulfilling her duties as best as she knows how. A deeper exploration into the Queen's relationship with Diana might have given a little extra weight to her plight, but Mirren is left to fill in these blanks through the subtlest of actions and body language.
The other performances are solid, with Michael Sheen (2006's "Underworld: Evolution
") doing fine work as progressive Prime Minister Tony Blair, Helen McCrory (2002's "The Count of Monte Cristo
") humorously stealing scenes as his loyal wife, Cherie, and Sylvia Syms (2003's "What a Girl Wants
") a tart delight as the elderly Queen Mother. Finally, Alex Jennings (2004's "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason
"), as Prince Charles, and James Cromwell (2004's "I, Robot
"), as Prince Philip, are serviceable with less to do.
In a film of great smaller moments and no big scenes of overwrought sentiment, three sequences stand out. The Queen's arrival at the front of Buckingham Palace's gates to view the hundreds of thousands of flowers left there and greet the mourners is surprisingly touching and, as with the use of archival footage, instantly transports the viewer back in time to those days following Princess Diana's passing. The other two standout scenes are a subplot involving a 14-point stag loose on the grounds of the Balmoral Estate that the men have set out to hunt. When Queen Elizabeth experiences a chance encounter with the stag all by herself, she suddenly finds perspective on the beauty and fragility of life that allows her to grieve for the first time over Diana. Later, when she learns that the stag has been killed by a hunter and goes to see it, the Queen is told that the deer was injured first and had to be tracked down to finish the job, not unlike the way Diana was constantly hounded by the paparazzi until it led to her undoing. "I hope he didn't suffer much," the Queen says, and it is clear she isn't only talking about the animal.
"The Queen" is sumptuously photographed by Affonso Beato (2005's "Dark Water
")some of the massive countryside landscapes are so grand that they nearly make one dizzy looking at thembut by and large this is very much a concentrated and personal story. In focusing on the humanity behind the frequently steely-faced Queen Elizabeth II, director Stephen Frears has given her the depth so often missing in magazine articles and newspaper clippings. And as for the late Princess Diana, this is a more fitting tribute to her life and good deeds than could have conceivably been anticipated. Low-key but fascinating, "The Queen" is a small gem of a motion picture that leaves a powerful aftereffect.