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The King of Queens

January 4, 2007

The Queen did something I never thought possible: it made me care about Princess Diana.

Maybe it’s because I was too young to catch the royal wedding, or maybe it’s because my American sensibilities are not refined enough to see how occasionally smiling in public was so scandalous, but Princess Di struck me as little more than a bejewelled mannequin who was beloved mainly because she happened to marry an ugly man who didn’t love her back.

The interesting thing about The Queen is that it doesn’t engender sympathy for Diana by showing us who she was–in fact, she’s barely in the movie–but by demonstrating how cruel the royal family was to her, even in death. In this, The Queen is not so different from Cinderella or Snow White, movies about dull, innocuous princesses who we care about only because they’re treated so badly.

The Queen begins with Tony Blair’s (Michael Sheen) assumption of power as prime minister in August 1997. Barely a week later, Princess Di dies, leading to an outpouring of grief from the British public but barely a sigh from the royal family. As the days following her death pass–and the bouqets and mourners crowd the streets around Buckingham Palace–an outcry builds for some sign of public mourning from the royal family. But Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and her brood are bewildered by the way the public mourns for someone they never knew. To their 19th century minds, Diana was no princess; after her divorce, she was a private citizen, and a salacious one at that. Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) tells Blair, “I believe the people will reject this mood stirred up by some overeager editors looking to sell more papers for a period of restrained grief and sober private mourning.”

The new prime minister, however, understands that Diana was “the people’s princess” and is worried by opinion polls that suggest the public may no longer want a monarchy. He nudges, then insists, that the royal family do something. The Queen records the royal family’s begrudged concessions: first they allow Charles to take a royal jet to bring back Diana’s body, then they authorize a public royal funeral modeled on the plans for the Queen Mother’s death, and finally, after great anguish, they agree to raise a flag to half-mast over Buckingham Palace and the Queen makes a live nationally televised statement about the nation’s loss. In an America where even the conservatives consider themselves “compassionate,” that public show of grief would be a no-brainer, but in a country that regards self-restraint as the highest virtue of a gentleman, it was a revelatory act.

As The Queen portrays it, the royal family is an isolated, insular family of oddballs who spend their days devoted to elaborate leisure on their 40,000-acre estate in Scotland. Prince Phillip (James Crowell) is a simple but intolerant man who cares about only three things: 19th century ideals of propriety, hunting deer and his beloved wife, the Queen, who he calls “Cabbage.” The Queen Mother (Sylvia Sims) is like Rose from the Golden Girls: the matriarch who is so advanced in age that she’s earned the privilege of saying anything she wants. When the Queen is informed during breakfast that she has a call from Tony Blair, the Queen Mother mutters, “Lucky you.” Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) is a bit of a cipher; he loves his children and his late ex-wife, but seems bizarrely obsessed with the possibility of assassination.

As expertly portrayed by Mirren and written by Peter Morgan, Queen Elizabeth II is a woman confident in her position and devoted to ancient notions of regal virtue. But within her family, she’s a bit of a moderate; where she is confused by the demands that she demonstrate her grief publicly, Philip is outraged. She shows the slightest hint of self-consciousness over the conditions of her singular life, expressing a curiosity about voting because she wonders “what it must be like to be partial.” Make no mistake, though: she is no modern woman, and she has as much of a distaste for fame as Diana appeared to have a hunger for it. She also seems a bit deluded about the real authority of her position–she seems to think her weekly advisory meetings with the prime minister are of genuine importance to the functioning of the government.

Potential pitfalls abound when trying to tell this kind of story. Centering on such privileged prudes as the royal family, The Queen could have easily descended into the kind of impossibly stuffy Victorian miniseries the BBC used to make. But Morgan, and the director, Steven Frears, keep things breezy and quick-paced, smartly spending a significant amount of time among the less emotionally repressed likes of Blair and his family. But there’s another, somewhat contradictory problem: how do you portay the true feelings of a monarch who’s been bred since birth to always carry herself with dignity and restraint? If you go too subtle, it will be nearly impossible to figure out what the Queen’s thinking, but if you go too broad–tears, soliloquies and the like–you’ll sacrifice credibility for clarity. Frears and Morgan come up with a clever solution to this problem: they introduce a symbol that acts as a surrogate for the Queen’s feelings toward Diana.

Early in the movie, Philip speaks of a giant stag that he and the young princes are attempting to capture. It’s of little interest to Elizabeth. About halfway through the film, she goes for a drive through the estate and her Land Rover breaks down crossing a stream. Appearing on the hill is the stag, and she is in awe of its beauty. She quietly begs the deer to run away before Philip and the rest of the hunting party catch up to him. Towards the end of the movie, we find out that the stag made its way to a neighboring property, where it was killed by an investment banker who paid to hunt on the bordering estate. Before returning to London to give her address to the British people, she stops by her neighbors to pay her respects to the stag’s carcass.

The royals’ evolving relationship to the stag suggests a credible narrative of the royals’ true feelings toward Diana. The royal family wanted to silence both Diana and the stag, but on their own terms; in both cases, the eclipsing forces of modernity (the paparazzi, an investment banker) got to them first. While Elizabeth never says she misses Diana, her gentle caress of the stag’s severed head suggests that she quietly mourns for her former daughter-in-law.

I haven’t mentioned Tony Blair much up to this point even though he figures prominently in the movie (indeed, Sheen probably has almost as many lines as Mirren). It’s partly because I found Sheen to be unconvincing as Blair; while he’s close to a dead ringer for the prime minister, Sheen’s performance makes Blair seems more like a wide-eyed whizkid who’s in over his head than the brilliant political strategist that Blair has always been. While the real Blair may have nothing to learn from Queen Elizabeth II, Sheen should take notes from Helen Mirren on how to project quiet authority and reserves of intelligence.

As all the other glowing reviews suggest, the linchpin to this movie’s success is Mirren. She somehow makes the most privileged woman in the world sympathetic. This is partially because the rest of her family are shown to be such boobs but it’s not simply a matter of the way she’s positioned in contrast to her husband, mother and son; Mirren brings the smallest bit of sadness to her expressions of authority. I found myself imagining how heavy the burden of being the Queen of England must be. Making me care about Princess Diana was hard enough, but making me care about a stodgy old woman who’s never known want or suffering in her life? I would never have thought it possible.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 10, 2007 10:21 pm

    Btw, Frears’ first name is spelled Stephen, not Steven. I know because he’s my favorite director. Surprisingly, the Golden Globes got it wrong too!

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