14 May 2007

The Queen

Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Peter Morgan

Grade: A-

An unusual piece of historical fiction, as with some daring it tackles a current, or at least recent, event—the death of Princess Diana—The Queen plays out as a dramatic conflict between two government officials, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren), that becomes an allegorical showdown between two opposing political courses: progressivism and reactionism. The uneasy contrast is set-up from the start, when newly-elected Prime Minister Blair and his wife, Cherie (Helen McCrory) have an awkward and humorous meeting with the Queen as they stumble through the required rituals and punctilios.

Screenwriter Morgan imagines the behind-the-scenes reactions of each side to the death of the former Princess, and how the entire affair brought them closer together and saved the monarchy (which to me, trapped forever in a 1776 mindset, seems a dubious triumph.) Frears fills in the spaces by adding actual news reports and press conferences from the time, allowing them to almost always dominate the background. (A bit of trivia: documentarian Adam "The Power of Nightmares" Curtis served as the "archive consultant".) As the action begins, the Royal Family is embroiled in Diana-related controversy—pronounced kon-TREV-ess-see, of course—but not too time passes before she is dead in Paris. The bulk of the film is set over the course of the next several days, titles indicating them as they pass, though they feel more like years.

Blair, in a telephone conversation with his speechwriter, notes, "this is gonna be huge," and his people are working on a statement within an hour of the accident. The Royal Family, on the other hand, finds the whole affair a bother, with the Queen's mother noting that Diana is more annoying in death than she was in life. The Queen adopts the familiarly British demeanor of "quiet dignity", avoiding the press and insisting that the whole affair is a private family matter. The Family makes no statements or appearances, cloistered away at their country estate as their behavior slowly evolves into a public relations disaster. The Queen fails to recognize that the private Diana they resented was not the public Diana the people adored, and that their silence is being construed as cruel and cold by a grief-stricken people in mourning.

Blair however, fresh off of a modern election campaign, understands the rules of the 24/7 media coverage world, and is incredulous at the Queen's behavior; "her instinct is to do nothing," he declares, "say nothing!" Although it could be argued that, more sympathetically, she is motivated by a desire to protect her grandchildren, Diana's children, from unscrupulous headlines and the pervasive media circus. Nevertheless, The Royal Family, failing to understand how the world has changed or that they have a public, visible place in the English cultural landscape, do everything wrong in terms of public mourning; they won't even fly the flag over Buckingham Palace at half-mast because it would defy hundreds of years of tradition, and the Blair camp can do little but watch and shake their heads.

Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), however, isn't so foolish; "What the country needs," he tells Mr. Blair, "is a more modern perspective," one they certainly won't be getting from Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. (Americans, especially, would be well-advised to brush up on their knowledge of the Royal Family tree before going in.) Not only won't those fogies make concessions to time-honored traditions on behalf of Diana—who in life caused them nothing but trouble—they seem genuinely confounded as to why they should. It's surprising just how out of touch the Queen is, most strikingly revealed when an advisor informs her that the flowers left at the gate by mourners will interfere with the changing of the guard. She absent-mindedly gives permission to move them, to which her advisor recommends: perhaps they ought to move the changing of the guard instead. Frears, cleverly, often shows The Queen trailed by her loyal dogs, over whom she has absolute control and the power of unquestioned command; they serve as a contrast to her subjects, over whom she is rapidly losing her authority. There has been a "shift in values," she admits later as she plaintively discusses her declining influence. Polls show a fourth of the English public advocating for the monarchy to be abolished.

So in steps Tony Blair, and it's ultimately he who comes out as the champion in The Queen; as his popularity rises in indirect correlation to that of the monarchy's, he chooses, rather than to allow the Royals to destroy themselves, to be the bridge between the people and the Royal Family. After all, he possesses a tremendous respect for them, which Morgan attributes it to a proud Englishness and a mommy-complex. He coins the phrase "the people's princess", which seems to placate the throngs (who Prince Philip compares to feral Zulus), and he also shakes the Royal Family from their fantasy conception of Great Britain and into the reality-based world. (If only he'd been such a friend to George Bush.) As such, though Blair should represent modern liberalism, the film's politics seem deeply conservative; Blair takes a step backwards, saying we can't persevere as a nation without preserving the past, without recognizing what made us a great power in the first place. The Queen may make a lot of political mistakes in the film, but Morgan and Mirren, who took the Oscar, imbue her with profound pathos; unimaginably, I came out of the film with sympathetic respect for the bloody Queen of England! The same goes for Blair who, despite his track record as a warmongering Bushboy, comes out of the film damn near a hero. (Partially to account for such sentiments is that the only anti-monarchist voice in Morgan's dynamite script is Blair's wife Cherie, who comes off so shrilly that it only makes everybody else look better—particularly Blair for being able to put up with and love such a shrew!)

The filmmakers open The Queen with a quote from Henry IV, Part II: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," and the Shakespeare allusion serves, in part, to acknowledge the albeit old-fashioned literary tradition of historical drama. I doubt the script's historical accuracy, and am uneasy of the politics involved in portraying Tony Blair as "the good guy", but that's not really the point. While it would be impossible for The Queen to avoid any political implications, its success stems from focusing on the interfamily drama and how it symbolizes the struggles within a modernizing England, while eschewing the particulars of the Labour Party's fumbles. To the nonacademic reader, do Elizabethean politics come to mind when reading Henry IV? Morgan's script may not be Shakespeare, but it's a remarkably successful adaptation of the classical tragedy form. Since the revolutionary tragedians of the twentieth century defied the rules set out in Aristotle's Poetics and began writing dramas about a bunch of Willy Lomans, it's become unusual to see a genuinely moving drama about individuals in power. I can't believe I'm saying this, but The Queen reminds us that royalty are people, too...and thusly uses them to examine the ambivalence between history and future that exists within us all.

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