The Queen: A Review
It happens right at the beginning, even as the titles are rolling in fact. Queen Elizabeth II, played by Helen Mirren, posing for yet another royal portrait on Britain’s election day in 1997, remarks to the artist almost wistfully, “I envy you being able to vote: the sheer joy of being partial.” A moment later she turns and looks straight into the camera as the film’s title is superimposed off to her left. It is here that Helen Mirren ceases to be Helen Mirren the actress and morphs, quietly, subtly, completely, into the real-life title character.
Ostensibly about the precarious position the Royals found themselves in in the days immediately following the tragic demise of “The People’s Princess” Diana in a Paris car crash, the film cleverly reveals the struggles of a monarch increasingly out-of-touch with the shift in values of her peoples that she is unable or unwilling to understand. Forty years after taking on a role she had never wanted, HMQ has nevertheless gotten very good at it and sees no need to change her modus operandi. But all of a sudden she is faced with a situation wherein the needs of her grieving nation run utterly contrary to what her emotions and her wits tell her to do. Never having had a rapport with Diana, and extremely averse to public displays of emotion, she is resistant to every suggestion of a royal public response to the death and retreats into the faraway familiarity of Balmoral Castle. Even as newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) gently urges her to rethink the old stiff upper lip adage, she is bent upon adhering fastidiously, stubbornly to her own watchwords of “restrained grief and sober private mourning.”
It is this tussle between ‘populist’ demands and the Queen’s own better but potentially ruinous judgment that makes up the juicy marrow of this smartly written, elegant little film. Writer Peter Morgan employs both sly, martini-dry humour, and non-cloying poignancy to produce a script that is knowing, witty and moving. There are a few hiccups, most notably in the form of a disappointingly one-dimensional Prince Philip (James Cromwell), but they are easily overlooked. Director Stephen Frears, having traversed cinematic ground as diverse as Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, My Beautiful Launderette, and High Fidelity, is more than adept at capturing the nuances of the material at hand and also coaxes some impressive performances from the cast, not least Michael Sheen as the hitherto Republican-minded PM who slowly comes to respect, understand and admire his sovereign’s ways. Which brings us to the film’s leading lady.
Yes, everything you’ve heard is true. All those accolades and superlatives being showered upon Ms Mirren is not just a case of a bunch of critics being overly effusive; this is the real McCoy. In a towering and masterful performance, the English actress duplicates perfectly the Queen’s sashaying gait and her signature intonation and cadences. But it is so much more than just gimmicky imitation; Mirren pulls off the near-impossible, nailing the complexities involved in essaying a woman who is intensely, notoriously private and yet leader and mother-figure to an entire nation. She brings to the part great poise and vulnerability, but also a subtle toughness that is immensely endearing. Having earlier been nominated for Oscars on two occasions, Dame Helen is more than certain to make it to the podium this time. Without her, The Queen might have been merely compelling; with her, it is a near masterpiece.