Queen, The (2006): Frears Biopic, Starring Helen Mirren in Towering Performance

Stephen Frears’ new political satire “The Queen” delivers royal entertainment of the first and best kind. Taking audiences behind closed doors of the power elite, this sharply observed serio comedy chronicles the monarchy’s shockingly slow and uncertain response to one of the biggest public events of recent times, Princess Diana’s tragic death in a 1997.

Royalty’s personal, familial, and political intrigues have always intrigued us via gossipy tabloids, serious commentary in the press, and even Hollywood movies, such as the 1968 Oscar-winning “The Lion of Winter,” a trashy expose, kind of a political “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn as the bickering royal couple.

Totally different, and one of the better samplers of this subgenre, “The Queen” provides a politically illuminating yet also deeply affecting dramatic glimpse into what happens in the corridors of power when an unexpected tragedy strikes. It’s hard to imagine a tragedy that had such international dimensions and created such media blitz as the coverage of the world’s favorite daughter, Princess Di, from her marriage to Prince Charles, through her well-publicized divorce, philanthropical activities, global travels, all the way to her untimely death in Paris.

The setting for Frears’ largely fictional fact-inspired account is the private chambers of the Royal Family and the new British government in the wake of Princess Diana’s sudden death, in August 1997. In the immediate aftermath of the Princesss passing, the tightly contained, tradition-bound world of Queen Elizabeth II (played superlatively by Helen Mirren) is abruptly brought into conflict with the slick modernity of the countrys brand new, image-conscious Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen).

The result, largely due to Peter Morgan’s poignantly sharp script, is an intimate portrait with epic proportions of a multi-faceted battle between royalty and democracy, the private and public domain, responsibility and emotion, custom and action. Above all, the film deals with the meaning and responsibility of the monarchy to its populace, as the grieving nation–and the whole world–waits to see what its leaders will say and do.

Morgan’s screenplay, drawn from extensive interviews and research, discreet sources, and informed imagination, as well portrayals of living power figures, turns “The Queen” into a fresh and entertaining chronicle of one of the modern worlds last great monarchs. It offers a portraiture of the Queen as she has never been seen before, as a vulnerable human being in her darkest hour, amidst the unprecedented media madness, stark emotions, and PR maneuvering all set in motion by Dianas death.

The film reunites helmer Frears with writer Peter Morgan (who has also penned the new political feature “The Last King of Scotland”), after their successful collaborated on Channel 4’s drama, “The Deal,” about the earlier history of Tony Blair, also starring Michael Sheen (see below)

The film begins in August 1997, when Princess Diana, one of the world’s most famous and idolized women, died in a disastrous car crash in Paris. Sending shock waves around the world, the global media went into frenzy. In England, too, where reserve and stiff upper lips once prevailed, a remarkable change began to take place in the fabric of society as the public came forth in unexpected displays of profound grief and emotion.

Set over the period of one crucial week after Diana’s death, “The Queen” is segmented into a day-by-day chronicle, with title chapters like Saturday, Sunday, and so on. According to the film, a huge gap prevailed between the reaction of the monarchy and that of the rank-and-file. It’s this juxtaposition that serves as the main narrative strand, bringing tension as well as humor to the proceedings.

Indeed, the impact of the tragedy is felt in an entirely different way in the corridors of power. Behind closed doors, an intensely private battle of wills erupts between the newly elected British government and the Royal Family over how to handle the incident. There are reasons for that. Diana was already a contentious figure. Following her separation from Prince Charles, the Princess had refused to sit quietly in the background and disappear from public life, causing anguish for the Royals. Besides, there are two young boys who need love and protection. (The movie chooses not to deal with that aspect).

Creatures of habit and protocol, the Queen and her family, mostly Prince Philip (a rather disappointing James Cromwell) and Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), but also their entourage, do what they’re used to be doing during family tragedies, hunker down in their own concealed ritualistic world, literally hiding away at their Scottish retreat in Balmoral. It takes several good days for them to be persuaded (unwillingly) into the public eye by Prime Minister Blair who’s initially portrayed as brash and self-serving, a master of public relations under the guise of pragmatism and populist charm.

This remarkable clash between a regal Monarch trying to fulfill what she perceives as her mandate and a savvy master of contemporary public relations forms the heart of “The Queen.” To the filmmakers’ credit, “The Queen” is not trashy or gossipy in the manner of TV Movie of the Week, though occasionally the film (intentionally or unintentionally) does trivialize events and familiar characters, some of which, such as Prince Philip and the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms), come across as caricatures.

Even so, the events surrounding Diana’s death could have offered a more facile, easily entertaining angle, since the ingredients are all here: a terrifying car chase by ruthless paparazzi; a celeb devastatingly killed in her prime; a controversial love affair cut short before it could blossom; a press corps accused of causing the death of the woman with whom they were so obsessed.

Instead, “The Queen” opts for a fresher take, peering at the resonating multiple effects of Dianas death as it shook the foundations of Britains relationship with its monarchy, one of the most revered and reviled institutions. In the movie, text and subtext submerge in raising some pertinent, unresolved, issues about that institution, such as the raison d’etre for its existence and its mission in the new millennium. Should the monarchy, a symbol of stability but also stagnancy, change, and if so, in what direction Should the Monarchy, as the film implies at the end, be more demonstrative, more responsive, more modern and image-driven

Then, there’s the portrait of the young Tony Blair, very much in the news these days, his wife, and their entourage. Contextually, it’s important to remember, that in 1997 Blair was new on the job and thus subject to hugely conflicting and unrealistic expectations, and yet inexperienced, with only four months into his premiership. Back then, Blair hadnt yet delivered a striking gesture, but suddenly thrown into the international spotlight with Diana’s death, he grabs the opportunity to take the lead.

The story’s real heart, and the film’s best scenes, is in depicting the unique relationship that developed during those crucial days between Blair and Queen Elizabeth, a relationship that evolved through few face-to-face tension and humor-ridden meetings and many more telephone calls.

The film is framed by an opening and closing scene that depict a meeting between the Queen and Blair–except that now an entirely different relationship prevails, one that at the end of one fateful week has become warmer, more personal, yet also more mutually respectful. Both office holders have become of their respective duties, responsibilities, and privileges.

In telling a sensitive, politically-charged story about people who are still alive, Frears has been scrupulously responsible. Clothed with political and moral ambiguity, “The Queen” goes out of its way to be non-judgmental, considering its inflammatory subject, refraining from offering clear heroes and villains, easy solutions or pat feelings.

Instead, Frears presents a multi-faceted portrait of the Queen, who still serves symbolically as the country’s emotional mother, one that also includes her roles as wife, mother, grandmother, boss of a huge staff, and also a private woman with her own quirky habits and hobbies. She likes to take long walks wit her dogs, drive her SUV by herself and fix it when it breaks, claiming proudly, “I was a mechanic during the War.”

For sheer entertainment purposes, it would have been easier to resort to a more overtly satirical mockery, which has always prevailed in the U.K. Instead, the filmmakers focus on the human qualities of their dramatis personae. Even those who think that the monarchy is archaic and inappropriate may admire the flesh-and-blood, extraordinary woman who embodies the institution, largely due to Helen Mirren’s humanistic and layered approach to her part.

Having reigned for more than half a century, the Queen, who recently celebrated her 80th birthday, would seem to be an almost impenetrable character. A great, naturalistic actress, Mirren surmounts effectively all the potential pitfalls of playing the Queen as a woman who’s largely ceremonial yet protected symbol of a once imperial England. Elizabeth II has never been depicted so intimately or humanly on the screen. In Mirren’s interpretation, but not impersonation, the Queen emerges as an extraordinary person, who unlike Blair is subtle, subdued (almost back within herself). Elizabeth may be confused for a while, but she’s not hysterical or neurotic–incredible self-discipline is the name of the game.

As Blair, Sheen, one of UK’s most talented actors who was stunning in capturing the Prime Minister in The Deal, is also good, showing compellingly Blair’s transform from the Labor leader-in-waiting to a more mature and savvy leader. When the movie begins, Blair had not only won the battle for leadership of the Labor Party, but had also just enjoyed a landslide victory in the general election, with all the vast responsibilities entailed.

One of Frears’ achievements is establishing a tone that effortlessly goes from the serious to the comic and back again. “The Queen” is remarkable in its dark acerbic humor and underlying humanity. The film walks a tightrope of insolence and boldness, mixing domestic scenes–the Blairs eating pasta in front of TV, or the Queen asleep in bed with Philip–with the professional chores in ways that make it very credible.

At first, its something of a shock seeing famous people doing ordinary things like waking up and dressing, walking their dogs, and having tea and chit-chat. However, with his smooth, masterly directorial touches, Frears makes you quickly forget that.