Duty first, self second. That’s how I was brought up.
–Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren)
The several shots of Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) driving her SUV over bumpy roadways are quite the highlight in The Queen. With her mouth set, her scarf pulled tight under her chin, she looks rather like Miss Gulch — except she loves her little dogs. Indeed, when conversation grows tense with her frequently exasperating son Charles (Alex Jennings), the Queen takes refuge with her pups: she stops the car, gives him the keys, and steps out, commanding her Corgis, “Walkies!” And with that she’s off, her galoshes slap-slapping in a steady, determined rhythm while the matching dogs scramble and dart down the road.
She’s in need of some refuge in Stephen Frears’ film, a jaunty, fictionalized account (by Last King of Scotland writer Peter Morgan) of how Diana’s 1997 death transformed the Queen’s relationship to “her people.” More specifically, it transformed her understanding of that relationship, as the film grants seeming access to her reflections on the crisis. And it does become a crisis, nearly immediately, despite her and her family’s efforts to dismiss the public, tabloidy uproar over the Royals’ insensitivity and obsolescence.
That the Queen can’t believe her constituents would imagine her out of date or touch sets the film’s tone, at least at first, somewhere between droll and mischievous. It begins by establishing the Queen’s new context, as of 1997: she poses primly for a court portraitist (Earl Cameron) as a nearby TV broadcasts the election of Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). He and his oh-so modern wife Cherie (Helen McCrory) present themselves as “modernizers,” a notion the Queen dismisses perfunctorily. Having endured, as she tells Blair during their first meeting, nine previous prime ministers before him, she’s quite disinclined to follow his lead. It is, she says, “our constitutional duty to advise [and] guide the government of the day.” In a word, he is temporary, she is constant.
While the Queen and her assistant Robin Janvrin (Roger Allam) blanch at Blair’s smarmy naïvete and efforts to perform “openness” (“Call me Tony!”), they also have faith enough in her God-given power and wisdom that they don’t even think about being threatened by his difference from them, or the new political climate he appears to embody. Moreover, as he embraces TV, celebrity, and the rough-and-tumble engagements with Parliament, he connects in the Queen’s mind to her troublesome daughter-in-law Diana. Pictured throughout the movie as TV footage, her joys and heartaches exposed for all to see, Diana uses her celebrity for causes (land mine removal, AIDS activism) as well as for personal confessionals, concerning her marriage and her strained relationship with The Family.
The Queen’s resentments come to the fore when Diana dies. While she imagines the appropriate reaction is to let the Spencer family handle the funeral and other mourning arrangements, to keep the affair small, the media make this impossible. The situation’s awful ironies are clear enough, even if the film doesn’t make them its focus: reenactments show Diana and Dodi Fayed entering their limo in Paris, with paparazzi lined up in cars and on motorcycles, their faces shadowed, their engines revving, until they take off after their prey like hungry jackals. Subsequent archival footage of Charles Spencer condemning the press for its part in her death underlines the sentiment, as he and everyone else, of course, use the media to condemn it.
Media golden boy Blair knows how the process works, and when he sees the Queen is not addressing the death publicly, stands in front of cameras and proclaims Diana “the people’s princess,” thus earning the adoration of those citizens who want to see her remembered properly, respectfully, and above all, emotionally. Initially, Blair and his team (including the photogenic Cherie, painted here as disrespecting the Queen’s old-schoolishness) take some glee in the public’s “siding” with him over the Queen, thinking it might grant some “political capital” somewhere down the road. But then he begins to see the roiling anger at the Royals as troubling, even dangerous, as it leads to conversations about abolishing the Royals altogether. Their insistence on appearing out of touch and irrelevant only gives the tabloid mills more grist.
Blair goes on to formulate media strategies — how to make the Royals look not so stuffy, covering their backs when they refuse to fly a flag at half-mast or even make a public statement to placate the public’s desire for official mourning. Realizing that his own pronouncements aren’t quite what the citizens want, he suggests, in a series of phone calls the Queen treats as impertinent, that the Royals take seriously the enormous, collective sense of grief Diana’s death inspires.
The Queen takes the position sniffily laid out by Prince Philip (James Cromwell) and the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms), namely, that the “bloody madness” will die down, that “the people” will come to their senses and realize that the divorced Diana is no longer a Royal concern. (The Royals are especially put out that plans for Diana’s funeral take on a spectacular shape, including “a chorus line of soap stars and homosexuals. Apparently Elton John is going to be singing!”) In an effort to keep their proper distance, the family remains at their summer retreat at Balmoral with a grumpy and not very articulate Prince Charles and “the boys” (barely glimpsed William and Harry).
For its first hour or so, the film is carried along by a witty irreverence, equally targeting the Queen and Blair as they manage their self-images. But while he repeatedly appears in scenes that show him strategizing and calculating with his staff and wife, she is resolute and sure of herself, occasionally consulting with Philip or her mother, but mostly alone. These moments are great fun at first — her traipses with the Corgis are delightful every time — but soon give way to the weight of metaphor.
When her trusty SUV stalls out midstream (she diagnoses the broken prop shaft when cell-phoning for help, having been a mechanic “during the war”), she waits patiently, then espies a magnificent stag, the very one she knows Philip and “the boys” are endeavoring to shoot. She shoos it away, but the film hangs on to this image, underlining its meaning as fading tradition and the need to maintain dignity even during cultural shifts, and etc. Instead of trusting Mirren to convey all this — which she does brilliantly — the film keeps hammering.
Eventually bogged down by this distrust of viewers, The Queen conjures a Queen anyone might love, badly advised by Philip, weary of her son, and resentful of Diana. But her strength is sapped by the movie’s overstatement. At last it delivers her lesson in an oddly passionate speech by Blair to his staff, which instructs them and you — as if you haven’t been watching her pondering her own dilemma for the past 90 minutes — extolling the Queen’s efforts to make sense of her new age. In this moment, the film shows a disappointing lack of faith.