In the opening sequence of The Queen (IMDB), Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and her husband Prince Philip (James Cromwell) watch on television as broadcaster announce that Tony Blair has been elected prime minister, ending over a decade of Tory rule. The youthful, energetic Blair (Michael Sheen) embodies a spirit of modernization that becomes one of the major concerns of the film, with Blair’s populist rhetoric completely at odds with Elizabeth’s adherence to tradition. The scene also sets up one of the film’s most persistent motifs, Elizabeth’s complete isolation from the British people, as we see the queen and her family consistently watching television as their only real window into the British public (and like AO Scott, I’m fascinated by the number of films–Marie Antoinette and The Last King of Scotland are the others–that seem fixated on the question of monarchy). .
This opening sequences sets up the major narrative of the film, Elizabeth’s struggles to maintain the relevance of the British monarchy after the death of Princess Diana in a car accident on the streets of Paris, and after showing Blair’s assumption of the role of prime minister, the bulk of the film focuses on the week between Diana’s death and her funeral a week later, providing us with an insider look at two very different families, the youthful and vibrant Blairs and the out-of-touch monarchy, who consistently who their lack of understanding of the national and international grief over Diana’s death, often to the bemusement of Blair’s staffers and speechwriters who happily show him newspaper headlines depicting public disappointment in the queen’s behavior (in fact, this isolation even extends to members of Elizabeth’s own family and her inability to even allow her own grandchildren to mourn their mother’s death, instead sending them off hunting at their Balmoral estate).
The role of television serves the film in other ways as well. Diana’s celebrity and the mourning over her death is conveyed almost entirely through television footage of Diana herself, and director Stephen Frears wisely chooses not to cast anyone to play the exiled former princess, perhaps reminding us that it was less Diana herself and more her image that was so beloved and so deeply mourned.
This opposition between modernization and tradition is also played out during Blair’s first meeting with Elizabeth, when he meets her for the ceremony that will officially give him the title of prime minister. Blair and his wife, Cherie (Helen McCrory), are carefully coached by Buckingham Palace staffers on the ceremony while Elizabeth herself carefully puts on the cool facade of monarchy. Cherie Blair, whose subversive attitude towards the monarchy is probably closest to my own, scoffs at the expected deference, while her husband merely endures the ceremony with mild discomfort. Significantly, Cherie’s position becomes increasingly marginalized over the course of the film in ways that I sometimes found unconvincing or frustrating (Filmbrain even refers to her as a “borderline Lady Macbeth“).
But the identification between Blair, who sees Elizabeth as a kind of mother figure, and the queen becomes interesting, especially as we are now witnessing the end of Blair’s leadership, in part due to his support of the unpopulr war in Iraq. At one point in the film, Prince Philip (I believe) reminds Blair that his current popularity will eventually wane, possibly quite suddenly, a line that certainly resonates with Blair’s imminent departure as prime minister, brilliantly satirized in the “Should I Stay” mash-up.
As this review suggests, there’s quite a bit going on in The Queen, especially in its treatment of a quickly transofrming political culture and its exploration of the vicissitudes of celebrity. It’s one of the smartest and most emotionally compelling films I’ve seen this year.
Update: Wort checking out: Kristin Thompson’s reading of The Queen. Like her, I’m often hesitant to see films that are promoted as actors’ vehicles (such as Monster’s Ball, Boys Don’t Cry, and Monster), and for that reason I was also hesitant to see The Queen, but the film’s treatment of (relatively) current politics drew me in. I think she’s right to note the ways in which the film is stylistically compelling, especially in the way that Frears establishes a contrast between Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair’s very different worlds. I think she’s absolutely right that “the royal-family scenes in The Queen look very 1950s.” During the scenes set in Balmoral and Buckingham, I found myself thinking about some of Douglas Sirk’s films, while the Blair scenes were often filmed using a handheld camera, establishing the prime minister’s energetic and casual style.