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The Queen And The Prime Minister

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Hem, hem, hem

The Queen

Dir: Stephen Frears

The title of Stephen Frears new film implies that it is going to be a straightforward biography of Queen Elizabeth II. Thank goodness this is not the case. Rather, as the opening section implies, this a portrait of the Queen – a sketch, highlighting one of her most difficult times as monarch, both publicly and privately.

Everyone who was alive and able to cut their own food remembers the week in August 1997 after Princess Diana was killed in Paris. It dominated the headlines, and thousands of mourners gathered outside Buckingham Palace to pay their respects. Anger over the House of Windsor’s reaction to Diana’s death grew over the week, as people wondered why the flag at the palace wasn’t flying at half mast, or why there hadn’t been a statement by the Queen. The royals were caught up in a media firestorm.

Of course at the time, the Queen et al were seen as mean-spirited and petty. But Frears’ film, written by Peter Morgan, gives us the ‘real’ reasons, or as real as we’re likely to get, why the Queen, at first, made no public response. And the reason is simple: it would simply have been in bad taste – not the proper thing to do.

The film isn’t only about the Queen. Tony Blair, the British prime minister, has a good deal of screen time. In the summer of 1997 he was a rookie PM, and far-removed from the cloistered world of British aristocracy. He’s often shown at his home, surrounded by clutter, and in one scene in particular sitting around a small kitchen table with his kids eating fish fingers, cooked by his wife. The contrast between his world and the Queen’s could not have been illustrated any better. However, for as small, both in stature and in influence, as Blair was at this time, and the fact that he wanted to modernize and change British politics, he comes off as the man who basically saved the monarchy, or, at least, helped it through a very tough time.

This is the kind of film that relies heavily on its acting and writing. The actors are playing characters still very much in the public eye. Nine years later and Blair is still PM, though with much greyer hair, and the Queen is, well, still the Queen. Helen Mirren as HRH has been accumulating accolades by the carriage-load for her portrayal, and she is truly astonishing. She completely embodies the Queen, so much so that one forgets that it is Mirren at all. Her moments of quiet contemplation speak volumes.

Michael Sheen as Tony Blair was also very well cast. Physically, he’s not a doppelganger for Blair, but his mannerisms, and his voice are amazing. The others — Alex Jennings as Charles, James Cromwell as Phillip and Sylvia Syms as the Queen Mum — are all very good.

Peter Morgan’s screenplay marvellously weaves Elizabeth’s and Blair’s stories and all the minor players in between. It manages to sympathize with both sides, but ultimately comes down in favour of monarchy – and even more so – tradition. Tradition, however, that needed to change with the times. The group that comes off the worst in the film are the citizens themselves, who, having been fed a simplistic view of the issues by the media, become a bit crazy.

And it is a tribute to director Frears that he makes The Queen feel like it directed itself. A rubbish thing to say, but the movie is so perfectly paced, the performances seem effortless and the whole thing just seems to fly by. Even the mixing of old video footage and photographs of Diana, and of the crowds, don’t feel cheesy or forced, nor are they used in a manipulative way. For a film that could have been a trashy, tabloid-esque movie-of-the-week tell-all, Morgan and Frears have crafted a subtle and quiet masterpiece that will only get better over time. llewopemearg

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