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The Queen

Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Sylvia Syms

(Miramax; US DVD: 24 Apr 2007)

Following close on the heels of taking in the gaudy spectacle that is Marie Antoinette, The Queen is now the second straight film I’ve reviewed for PopMatters that focuses on the cloistered interior lives of royal women. Now, I’m no expert on queens or princesses,  nor have I ever much of a predisposition towards or occasion for pondering the gossipy cult of celebrity surrounding the throne, be it 18th century Versailles or 20th century Buckingham Palace. But in the case of The Queen, I can confess to being particularly smitten with Helen Mirren of late, which contributed greatly into my interest in finally seeing Stephen Frears plethoricly nominated, somewhat droll, and often rather moving portrait of seven of the most trying days in the life of Elizabeth II. Plus, there was, of course, the promise of corgis (whom, I’m sad to report, get distressingly little screen time).


‘Portrait’ and ‘portraiture’ being the key words here, and not just because it sets they tone of the film rather explicitly, opening on Elizabeth sitting for a portrait, resplendent and stiff in her full royal attire (which I learned from one of the commentary tracks are called “garter robes”). In the accompanying “making of” feature on the DVD, Mirren makes an especial point of drawing comparisons between what the film—and most especially, she—is trying to accomplish in The Queen, and portrait painting, which isn’t trying to get at the essence by precision, but by some confluence of fact and artistic license. The aim is to achieve “likeness” rather than the “like”, to interpret rather than replicate.  Mirren, and the film, is trying to extract and inhabit a life which the world never sees, and this is made all the more difficult and somewhat hazardous by the fact that Elizabeth II is, of course, still alive, and is one of the—if not the—most famous woman in the world.


Frears and the screenwriter, Peter Morgan, draw attention, in one of the film’s two commentary tracks, to the fact that though the film was rigorously researched and historically correct, they often consciously favored “truth” over historical accuracy, and sacrificed the latter for the former.  Truth being shorthand for artistic license, I guess, but then how else are you to get away with portraying the side of the Queen that only her inner circle ever sees: the Queen shuffling around her retreat Balmoral Castle in the days after Diana’s death; the Queen tromping around the woods with her dogs, bombing through the Scottish highlands in her jeep; or (gasp!) the Queen lying in bed in her nightgown and robe, watching the tele, her bare feet exposed (gasp gasp!). Frears admits to still being shocked by seeing this domestic side of the Queen, and indeed, it’s a profound sense of surprise probably lost on most Americans, who have no real equivalent to the British royalty, nor any overarching public figure quite so prim, proper and stoic as Queen Elizabeth.


Frears does get a chuckle out of how shocked he was to see how shocked American viewers are to see life inside of 10 Downing Street, though (at least, as it was when Blair first moved in after his 1997 election). And indeed, new Prime Minister Tony Blair’s quarters within seem like the toy-strewn, eternally messy home of any couple raising young children. (Contrast this with the formal, somewhat stodgy White House). Blair’s ascension, of course, represents what at the time was regarded a seismic, if not entirely revolutionary, referendum on ushering the UK into social and political modernity. Indeed, Blair’s rise, more so than Diana’s death, is the main impetus to chipping away and eventually piercing the wall of nearly impenetrable propriety surrounding the royal family. A disruptive intrusive dynamo, his home life, chaotic and bustling and messy, mirrors the sort of exciting youthful energy he tried to inject into government, which ran smack into the face of the millennia-old traditions of the throne, and the sort of musty, custom strictured life that revolves around it.


The contrast of these two forces at loggerheads is further augmented by Frears’ decision to shoot all of the Queen’s scenes in 35mm, while Blair’s were all shot in 16mm, the choice of film stock drawing your attention again to the sense of remove of the royals and the immediacy of Blair, the man of the people. It actually works rather well once you notice it; the film feels like it’s withdrawing from and approaching you simultaneously, as the Queen retreats away from the very world Blair embraces.


And interjected sporadically throughout the film, punctuating the dance of Queen and her PM, is stock newsreel footage from that fateful late summer week between Diana’s death and the funeral. Though the film is not fundamentally about Diana, her fatal celebrity, or her legend, she is impossible to escape, to forget, for even one second. Which is, of course, the entire point: Diana – alive or dead—is the thorn that always threatens to puncture the protective cocoon enveloping the royals.


In The Queen, the late princess looms as a ghost, haunting the lives of the royals and the nation, indeed haunting the film itself in the fleeting glimpses we catch of her across the screen in grainy old video. This footage, forming the third visual fragmentation of the film’s surface, is complemented by other video from the mass gatherings in front of Kensington and Buckingham Palaces in the days following Diana’s death. It is oddly distracting, in a way, breaking the spell the rest of the film casts, while at the same time giving it an eerie resonance. Frears alleges he had no other choice, that the cost of recreating the mass communions of people, as well as the vast fields of flowers and gifts left in tribute, would have been impossible. And since leaving them out wasn’t an option either, he had no choice. The overall effect on the film isn’t fatal, by any means, it even adds some depth.


But what does not suffer, at all, not for one second, is Mirren’s transcendent, high-wire act as the Queen. Much has been made of this performance already – and I wouldn’t call it a performance so much as an inhabiting, or a transmutation—that I don’t know how much more of worth I can add to the accolades. Mirren has never been so rich, so vibrant, so witty, so arch, and so moving, as she’s been when she had to restrain and contain all her vast talent beneath the Queen’s frumpy demeanor, eccentric mien, and iconic coiffure (Frears again is tickled by Americans’ comparison of Elizabeth’s hair to that of George Washington). Make no mistake about it, though it is a sly, subtle, intelligent and often very moving picture; though it is well written and competently, if not flashily, directed, the reason—the only reason—it works as well as it does (and the only reason it garnered itself a surprise Best Picture nomination) is because of Mirren (who, of course, deserved her Oscar more so than any Best Actress in recent memory).


Because, in the end, I’m not quite sure what you are supposed to take away from The Queen. A first pass through and it plays like a droll comedy of manners, despite its surface chilliness and drabness. Though the Queen is often clipped, reticent, and terse, she seems always to be close to ironically arching an eyebrow with every pithy word out of her mouth (and this might just be Mirren). Her dialogue crackles with an inner vivacity which is defused by her demeanor, and thus never revealed to the public, but seems nonetheless to be her greatest strength against the exigencies of her position. And of course, the film does play on its surface as a very astute and perceptive case study of a peculiar and unprecedented socio-cultural political crisis, the ancient versus the ultramodern, impartiality versus the personal.

And to be sure, a second viewing does reveal the film to have some emotional heft to it; small fleeting moments when the veneer cracks, when the weight of the contemporary finally breaks through the fortress of accumulated centuries, when perhaps the façade of the royal world is revealed to its chief exponent (but notice, we only see the back of her head when she finally breaks down and cries), and the personal very much overrides all other concerns. But then again, who is able to relate to the private/public suffering of (as Cherie Blair cattily calls them) “A bunch of free-loading emotionally retarded nutters”? And again, this revolves back around to the peculiar national relationship between Britain and its Queen, which I just don’t think translates well, fails the test of universality which truly great films must pass.  Lucky then, that The Queen has that one indisputable, unbeatable ace up its sleeve in Mirren, who saves the film from becoming just another pleasant but forgettable curio from the UK. Her Elizabeth is truly a Queen for us all, the people’s Queen.


The Queen arrives on DVD with a short “making of” featurette and accompanied by two commentary tracks. The featurette breaks down into discussions about the challenges in portraying iconic people who are still alive, and the difficulties of artistic liberties versus historical accuracy. There is also some talk about the set designs and costuming, as well as strategies for tackling the locus around which the film revolves, those seven days in August and September 1997.


Frears and Morgan’s mostly tangential commentary sticks mostly to on set trivia, mixed with their reactions to the film’s various and varied receptions among British, European, and American audiences, and how the film plays differently amidst different socio-cultural contexts. They properly steer clear of any sort of exegesis, content to let the viewer find her own way, but nor do they really ever go into great depth about what a peculiar and difficult undertaking this must have been.


The second commentary comes courtesy of Robert Lacey, an historian and biographer of the royal family, who served as the main historical consultant on the film. Those expecting some sort of juicy Kitty Kelly-esque gossip will be sorely disappointed—Lacey’s commentary is strictly aboveboard and proper (the Queen would definitely approve), and goes into great detail about the customs and practices of the Queen’s daily life. It is both exhaustive and exhausting, but does go a long way towards clearing up any confusion a non-Brit might have with many moments of the film. 


However, neither Lacey nor the filmmakers answer that most vital and perplexing question regarding the Queen: what exactly does she carry in that ubiquitous purse of hers? According to the Straight Dope, the Queen never leaves home without carrying a comb, a handkerchief, a small gold compact, and a tube of lipstick. Upon first publication in 1988, this question totally stumped Straight Dope guru Cecil Adams, who, after being stonewalled by Buckingham Palace, speculated that it must certainly contain dog treats for the royal corgis. And maybe the real Queen doesn’t, but I can easily imagine Mirren’s somewhat impish Queen carrying around just that for her beloved dogs.

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The Queen - Trailer
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