The Queen (2006)
Starring: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Sylvia Syms, Alex Jennings, Helen McCrory, Roger Allam
Directed by: Stephen Frears
To begin, I must say that I have zero interest in the British monarchy. None. I don’t follow the tabloid goings-on of the royals, don’t care about their history, and barely even know the history of the line of succession (even though, technically, I am one of their subjects). I met Princess Diana‘s death with the same disinterested shrug that I meet most celebrity deaths. So why did I go see this movie about the week following Diana’s death and the reaction from the monarchy to it? Well, it’s been universally praised and keeps popping up in awards season, and I’m nothing if not a slave to my year end lists and naming my own award winners posts.
That said, a movie I would’ve had no interest in had it not received praise had a lot of work to do to make me care about the lives of HM Queen Elizabeth II and her family as they struggle with the public’s outcry to Di’s death, and how it contrasted to the response by Prime Minister Tony Blair‘s new Labour government. I’m not naturally in awe of the monarchy, nor am I typically interested in movies based on monarchy. It wouldn’t matter to me if Helen Mirren‘s performance was fantastic if the movie didn’t manage to bring me in.
Call it mission accomplished, as Stephen Frears managed to pierce my usual indifference to captivate me into his docudrama that is less a biography on the title character, and more a capturing of a pivotal moment of recent history, tapping into the collective public consciousness to show the battle between tradition and modernity that was at the heart of the public’s outpouring of grief. The movie truly moved me in its depiction of the mass amounts of public grief, instilling in me an understanding of how such moments can affect people in profound, inexplicable ways, whereas I previously found it all a little silly.
Sure, it is a little silly to be reduced to tears over the passing of someone you’ve never met. But, as this movie shows, mass mourning sometimes takes on a life of its own, as people internalise things to represent things within themselves. This was about more than the passing of the People’s Princess, this was about a nation feeling that their institutions were outdated and unfeeling, forcing them to question their very validity. If Queen Elizabeth couldn’t bring herself to care about the passing of such a beloved figure, the mother of her grandchildren, then what did this say about her connection to her subjects? Why keep paying the tab for her and her family when a new populist leader like Blair (Michael Sheen) seemed so attuned to their grief and needs?
Conversely, the film manages to break down the walls and cool exterior of the Queen, revealing the inner struggles of a woman attempting to come to terms of the ever-shifting nature of modernity. Mirren gives a layered, complex, and measured portrayal of the Queen that reflects the reserved public face of Elizabeth II, while drawing us into her struggle with the quietest of expressions, making her at once human while still iconic. It is a fantastic performance worth all the praise it has received. It’s hard to imagine another performance this year that will top Mirren’s for Best Actress honours (well, it’s also hard to imagine one that will be significant enough to top it either… I can’t think of any upcoming buzz movie that features an actress in a prominent leading role).
Frears uses a deft touch with The Queen, alternatively injecting the movie with both reverence for the royal family while completely demystifying them. It’s a fascinating drama about the shift in modern Britain from tradition to the media-driven celebrity culture of today, that is delivered with a light, comic touch. The film hits on all notes, accomplishing the impossible: making me sympathise and care about the plight of the Royal Family.