Review: The Queen
by Charles A. Coulombe, KCSS
(originally posted at http://www.collider.com/entertainment/reviews/article.asp/aid/2994/tcid/1; presented here by kind permission of the author)
Jackie Mason once observed that “if someone breaks down on a bike, you help him; if he breaks down in a Rolls-Royce, you cheer!” Film reviewers are not immune from this unappetizing human trait; a truly interesting film brings out the best and the worst in us, and The Queen (directed by Stephen Frears, written by Peter Morgan) is no exception. In this case every drop of vitriol a few of our tribe could pour out against the Windsors has been poured, of which more anon. But first, let’s look at the film itself, which describes the Royal Family’s and Prime Minister Blair’s reaction to the death of Princess Diana. Royal protocol (as well as a desire to shield the two young princes) dictated that the Windsors remain in seclusion; popular fervor, whipped up by the media, demanded that they mourn in public.
It is a lovely movie, visually --- and how could it not be, given the settings: the Scottish Highlands, Buckingham Palace, and 10 Downing Street (although other, just as beautiful locales did duty for the latter two). The viewer is given a small insight into a world whose rituals seem strange and outmoded --- rather like those of the White House or the Capitol, when one gets to know them. But the most wonderful thing about this movie is certainly the acting.
It is difficult to praise Helen Mirren more highly than to say that she has brought a difficult role to life. The Queen has been in her place since 1952, and at this juncture, playing her could easily be rather like playing Mount Rushmore. But from all that this reviewer has read and heard about her (the latter, admittedly, from people who know her), Miss Mirren has captured her humor, her flintiness, her vulnerability, and above all, her sense of her duty to God and her people.
James Cromwell astonishes yet again, putting on the guise of Prince Philip as easily and deftly as he played the corrupt Irish cop, Dudley Smith in L.A. Confidential and Farmer Hoggett in the “Babe” movies; one constantly has to remind himself that Cromwell was born in Los Angeles. Alex Jennings, on of the most underrated British actors of his generation, portrays Prince Charles as aware of present realities, although indecisive and cowardly. It is a convincing performance, although not entirely accurate (one remembers the way the Prince stood stock still and looked at his apparent would-be assassin on an Australian tour). Sylvia Syms plays the late Queen Mother as an extremely aged senior citizen far quicker than many younger folk.
As against the royals are the political set, particularly Michael Sheen as Tony Blair (who, apart from bearing an uncanny resemblance to the PM has captured the chipmunk-caught-in-the-headlights look that characterized his first years in office), Helen McRory as Blair’s shrewish wife, Cherie, and Julian Firth as the PM’s bullying aide. As portrayed in this film, the latter two incessantly complicated Blair’s life at this difficult period by their incessant sniping at the Queen. Toward the end he blows up at them, citing Elizabeth’s afore-mentioned dedication to duty, the fact that she had not wanted the job, and that Princess Diana had been singularly ungrateful for all that the Queen had given her. Of course, in the end, the Queen gave in to Blair’s importuning and made public appearances and speeches expressing her sorrow.
What emerges from this film most clearly is the idea that both the Royals, the politicos, and the hapless Princess herself were driven more the media than by anything real --- an occurrence not confined to Great Britain. Indeed, Diana herself emerges as both the creation and the victim of that selfsame media, who in turn capitalized on her death. Of course, one cannot help but mention that the PM was able to convince the media, four years ago, not to dwell upon his daughter’s suicide attempt.
The British system seems incomprehensible to Americans at first glance; hereditary positions seem inherently undemocratic. But where professional politicians are willing and able to sacrifice everything to the pursuit of power, the Royals are much like the rest of us (albeit better dressed and educated, as a rule) --- born into a position, and forced to make the best of it. In the UK, the Queen rules in name, while the politicos actually make the decisions, for good or for ill. Often they are quite cynical about her in whose name they manage things. Our system is similar, save that it is the people in general and their constitution who are the figurehead. The major difference, of course, is that we do not have the luxury of taking the leadership to task once-in-a-while, save at election time. Given the low voter turnouts, few of us even exercise that privilege.
At any rate, for the observant (rather than for those with anti-monarchical prejudices) one thing comes clearly out of this film: in Britain, as here, the old establishment of privileged birth has been replaced to a great degree, in reality, by a new one of the kind of glitterati show in this film as the late Princess’ closest friends: Gianni Versace, Sir Elton John, and Tom Cruise.
This reviewer was recruited for the memorial service for the Princess here in Los Angeles, a week after the funeral in London. Taking his seat in the fourth row of the church, he and a friend noticed that the first row was empty, and wondered who the principal mourners would be. The mystery was cleared up minutes later when Michael Jackson and his entourage filed in from a special entrance. Noticeably absent from the assemblage was the King of Pop’s chimpanzee, Bubbles.
“Where’s Bubbles?” asked the friend.
“Unlike Her Majesty,” your reviewer replied, “Bubbles is being allowed to mourn in private.”
Such was, and is, solemnity in our day.
All in all, The Queen is an excellent acted inside look into one of the most controversial moments in the modern British Monarchy. The Royals do not come across as Mr. and Mrs. Average; most of the politicos appear calculating and artificial. Not the film to watch if you are considering a career in public service.