English Title: The Queen
Country of Origin: Britain
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenplay: Peter Morgan
Cinematographer: Affonso Beato
Editor: Lucia Zucchetti
Runtime: 103 minutes
In August 1997 the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a car crash in Paris throws Britain into turmoil. The Royal family and the newly-elected Prime Minister Tony Blair react to the unprecedented outpouring of public sentiment in very different ways. The Queen refuses to come down to London from Balmoral, Scotland, and to treat the death of the Princess as a matter of state. Blair sees his popularity rise as his staff steer public and media reactions to the tragedy and promote his seemingly-compassionate public image. Blair pleads with the Queen to respond to growing and hostile criticism of her inflexible attitude, whereas her son Charles, Diana's ex-husband, manoeuvres to distance himself from his mother’s standpoint. Sticking to the principles of tradition, protocol, sobriety and restraint, the Queen feels increasingly isolated and criticized. Her attitude starts to shift as she tries to rethink her position and understand why Diana's funeral means so much to British people.
The Queen is Stephen Frears’ second collaboration with screenwriter Peter Morgan, following on from their television drama The Deal (Channel 4, 2003), which uncovers the roots of Blairite ideology and the rise of New Labour. Michael Sheen also played Tony Blair in The Deal and adeptly reprised his performance in The Queen. Like The Deal, The Queen was originally conceived of for television, yet it was given feature film status when French studio Pathé agreed to finance the project.
The Queen renovates the heritage film to reflect on the recent past and continues a successful cycle of monarchy films that includes Mrs Brown (John Madden, 1997) and Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur, 1998). The Queen updates the theme of conflict between the monarchy's private and ‘public’ personas through focus on a contemporary monarch’s unease with the effects of privacy meltdown and media over-exposure. Yet it also reinstalls some of the genre's most conservative traits. For example, when a nervous Blair (Michael Sheen) steps into Buckingham Palace for his first audience with the Queen (Helen Mirren), he is instructed on protocol in a way that provides a vicarious, touristic experience of tradition and deference for the contemporary, and especially international, audience.
Morgan’s script is a balanced mixture of topicality and distance, taking on the events of 1997 as a symbolic turning point in the nation’s recent past. The opening shots of the film, with news footage of New Labour’s historic victory in the May 1997 general elections, herald the moment of ‘Cool Britannia’ (Britishness as brand for youth, creativity and economic power). This prompted The Times’ reviewer James Christopher (2006) to note that The Queen shows a ‘sweet nostalgia for the golden age of Labour landslides’. However, Morgan’s script carefully reframes this particular historical moment through the 24/7 flow of images that shape public knowledge. As Queen Elizabeth II distractedly watches television reports on the outcome of the elections while posing for an official portrait, a tension emerges between two forms of power, but also two different regimes of historical representation.
The Queen's perception of events unfolds as an intensely private drama, which is externalized in a clichéd epiphanic moment in the Scottish Highlands – a landscape often romanticized in British cinema as a place for escape and a source of self-knowledge for English characters (eg Mrs Brown). Mirren endows the Queen with psychological depth and agency in a film overwhelmingly sympathetic to the plight of the modern monarch. Yet Sheen’s apparently more transparent performance as an idealistic Blair may be, in fact, the real cipher of the film. His image, like Diana’s (an uncanny televisual ‘ghost’), is endlessly scrutinized by the various television sets that fill in the mise-en-scène.
The meetings between Blair and the Queen that bookend the narrative ironically highlight the permanence of monarchy versus the transience of elected representatives of power. Notwithstanding the film’s (slightly reactionary) tone of disenchantment, The Queen’s fusion of heritage aesthetics and political drama is a prescient early assessment of the political moment just passed.
Author of this review: Belén Vidal
Peer reviewer: Belén Vidal