Being British there is always a certain fascinating obligation that nearly all members of the United Kingdom share with our head of state. Whether that obligation is allied to loyalty or revulsion it never ceases to amaze people how the Queen is still an incredible public monument through better times and for worse. Yet paradoxically she also appears to ‘her’ very same peoples as a loving, caring mother of what has been revealed over the years as a very troubled family. The latter however was forgotten surprisingly quickly when Princess Diana passed away after a horrific car crash in 1997 in the l’Alma tunnel, Paris; an event which shocked people across the entire globe. Stephen Frears managed to capture this confusing and distressing time of Britain’s cultural climate during the aftermath with perfect scope, however one could argue that his vision was slightly more patriotic than one would personally have liked. The Queen is a film which was lauded by critics and the general public upon release in October 2006, just one year before the ten year anniversary of Diana’s death and has since created a renewed appreciate for actress Helen Mirren. But more importantly it has also managed to reveal a much fresher perspective of the story of those dark days, uniquely told from the royals point of view.
Stephen Frears is a director who has enjoyed a very varied career over the years. His home-grown drama’s “My Beautiful Lundrette” (1985) and “Prick Up Your Ears” (1987) provided him with enough critical success to earn a shot at a Hollywood production. The result was the ingenious 1988 hit “Dangerous Liaisons” which featured fantastic performances from John Malkovich and Glenn Close to name just a few from its stellar cast. Since then Frears has gone on to enjoy continued success with 1990’s “The Grifters” and the infamous “High Fidelity” in 2000. However it was The Queen that would firmly established Frears’ ability to not only take on the romanticized historical epic as a genre but to also amalgamate the writing of its script into a down-to-Earth, realistically believable personal drama. Helen Mirren, as countless others have described, is wonderful as Queen Elizabeth II, giving a quiet and contemplative performance to a figure so few really know. The scenes of Mirren walking around Buckingham palace with those two wretched dogs or hiking across the Scottish landscape with a collection of bodyguards are incredibly entertaining, not just to observe but also to imagine. It’s easy to forget how world leaders and figures of power are also people too!
The supporting cast are nothing but wonderful in their roles. The physically uncanny resemblance of James Cromwell as the Duke of Edinburgh was at first one I immediately predicted would be a wonderful example of a miscast American actor playing a British role only to be very pleasantly surprised at how effective his portrayal of the real life Duke was. The same goes for Alex Jennings as the Prince of Wales and Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair. However the real crown jewel (pardon the terrible pun) is reserved for Michael Sheen’s outstanding re-enactment of then Prime Minister Tony Blair; a role he has since replayed three times. My personal favorite is his last take on Blair in the HBO produced film “The Special Relationship” (2010), one to watch especially for Dennis Quaid’s portrayal of President Bill Clinton.
It is very hard to review The Queen without giving in to a sense of British patriotism and respect. By all accounts Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan (another well respected talent) have excelled in telling a dramatized re-enactment of the following aftermath of Diana’s death, but more importantly have also managed to not give in to a more romanticized view of recent history. Frears’ Elizabeth is a strong willed but confused woman, a mother whose entire family has not come to terms with the changing social attitudes on subjects such as grief. Helen Mirren does a splendid job at making the long serving Queen a personable human being. One who we at first are very emotionally distant from but eventually become royal chums with at the end. Sheen’s ever-grinning, almost caricature portrayal of Tony Blair is truly uncanny and helps to add to the level of detail that has gone into the overall believability of the world of The Queen. The British public too are painted in an unflattering light in parts, venting their frustration with the royal family directly at Elizabeth herself, at times unfairly, at other occasions it is simply misunderstood anger. Epic in historical drama but personally individual in character Stephen Frears’ intriguing biopic is one to watch by everyone if given the chance….just please don’t think all of us Brits are like that…now…God save the Queen!