It’s the type of bold mixture we have not seen on a big or small screen since Kennedy Miller’s Australian epic The Dismissal (1983): on the one hand, very liberal use of archival news and documentary footage, even a torrent of newspaper front pages and headlines; on the other hand, very free license to fictionalise, to imagine what the most public people in the world said to each other in the privacy of their beds.
The subject of Stephen Frears’ The Queen is the British Royals – or, more exactly, the historic eclipse of this aristocratic sovereignty in the days that followed the shocking news of ex-Princess Diana’s death in a Paris tunnel.
Unable to immediately respond in public – the first, nesting impulse of Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and Prince Philip (James Cromwell) is to scoot off to Balmoral Castle and look after Diana’s kids – and badly misjudging the mood of the British people, the Royals find themselves supplanted by an unlikely and somewhat gormless hero: the newly elected Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen).
One test of a good movie is how it manages to meet and negotiate the diverse prejudices of its audiences. The Queen, beautifully scripted by Peter Morgan, preaches no particular political line, and plays to no particular bias. Its satire is democratically spread around, and so is its compassion. It is the best film about the political process “from the inside” since Mike Nichols’ underrated Primary Colors (1998).
It’s the kind of film – old-fashioned in the best sense, and rarely seen today – which keeps re-approaching its characters from another angle and showing them to us in a different light.
Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), for instance, is portrayed, for the most part, as a preening, paranoid, rather lonely buffoon (although Camilla Parker-Bowles is mentioned, she is left out of the on-screen action). But he is still allowed to deliver a fiery, righteous speech to the Queen about the shameful lack of respect accorded to “the mother of the next King”.
The drama consistently operates according to screenwriting guru Jean-Claude Carrière’s principle that every character – no matter how two-dimensional, stupid, dull or loathsome – must be given a moment in which they, suddenly and surprisingly, “go to the end of themselves” and reveal a depth you didn’t hitherto realise they had.
The multi-facets of this film are superbly balanced. At some moments, it is a tart comedy of manners about a dying class: the Queen with her small fleet of dogs, her reliance on ritual, and distaste for emotional display – the notion, frequently presented to her, that “the nation must be allowed to publicly grieve” prompts only incomprehension in her – and her firm belief in tradition.
But, at other moments, we see that she has a common touch after all, in her daily dealings with servants and helpers. And we feel her pain when, in a climactic scene at the gates of Buckingham Palace, she silently reads, amid the profuse bouquets of flowers and sunny drawings, messages to the effect that the Royals “didn’t deserve” Diana, and that they have her “blood on their hands”.
The other side of the political picture is viewed just as complexly. Blair rides to power as the bearer of a bold new modernisation, egged on by his wife, Cherie (Helen McCrory). But, by degrees, he comes to sympathise not only with the Queen’s difficult plight as an ageing individual stuck in her ways, but also the non-modern values she represents (his sudden fright at the word “revolutionary”, when pronounced by one of his entourage, is a nice touch).
Cherie provides a running commentary, offering various interpretations of this shift in Blair: perhaps he identifies the Queen with his own mother; or maybe he is simply following the path of all British Prime Ministers, eventually seduced by the strange charm of the Monarchy.
The actors appearing within such a delicate mosaic have a difficult task: they must be able to hold their characters up for ridicule, at a critical distance, but they also have to go deeply enough to create true moments of pathos and empathy. Helen Mirren is indeed the master of this double game: like everyone in the ensemble, she is made to resemble her model closely enough, but that superficial, at-first-glance effect of verisimilitude is only the start of her job.
In a prologue worthy of the films of François Ozon, the Queen poses for a portrait, and her effortless composure speaks volumes about the long years of training, restraint, control. Yet, as the camera moves in for the close-up that will allow the film’s title to appear alongside the face, Mirren diverts her glance and directly gazes at us. It is a look that gives away nothing, and yet seems to let us in on an intimate secret.
Frears is a director who regularly mocks what he sees as the pomposity and pretension of the auteur theory in film criticism – the idea that a creative filmmaker gives expression to his or her own recurring themes and obsessions, with the aid of a recognisable, signature style. Frears, by contrast, views himself as a no-nonsense professional (there are no tears for Frears); he alters his style each time out, in the service of the subject or script. This leads, inevitably, to a frustrating unevenness in his career.
But when Frears is in full command of his material, as in Dirty Pretty Things (2002) or Liam (2001), he is an exceptional craftsman. Look at how he brings out the subtle symmetries inherent in the script of The Queen – between, say, the Royal Advisor Janvrin (Roger Allam) and Blair’s speechwriter, Alastair Campbell (Mark Bazeley). Or study how he takes what is a gag in an early scene – the Blairs’ clumsy attempt to not turn their back on Her Highness – and twists it into the most poignant moment of the whole show, when the Queen, alone on a hill, finally releases some pent-up emotion … but we are only allowed to view her from the back.
The thought may not please the director, but there could be, after all, a hidden, auteurist continuity underlying his prolific output. As a student, Frears learnt much from his mentor, Alexander Mackendrick – another very British filmmaker who tested his own limits within the American system. Indeed, it is Mackendrick’s hardboiled masterpiece Sweet Smell of Success (1957) that sets the model for Frears’ best films: the hard-won ability to present an intimate, chamber drama as also the portrait of a social microcosm, capturing the fleeting, seemingly confused but absolutely determining texture of everything that feeds into a “moment”.
In this sense, The Queen allows Frears to revisit – and this time handle better – the subject of his odd American assignment, Hero (1992). That film – about a slick, media-savvy phony (Andy Garcia) who steps forward into the public eye as a hero, easily suppressing the un-telegenic marginal (Dustin Hoffman) who really deserves the credit – clocked in as the first satirical critique of the burgeoning era of Reality TV. It was also, in its nutty humour, on a par with another TV phenomenon that began in those years: The Simpsons. For it was that marvellously spikey cartoon series which nailed, once and for all, the curious and cut-throat rhythm of a media-mad world where reputations are won and lost in the blink of a cut.
Like the famous episode of The Simpsons (“Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish”, Season 2, Episode 4, 1990) which taught us that Mr Burns’ burgeoning political career was over, on live TV, “before the three-eyed fish had time to hit the ground”, The Queen lays out for us, in hectic but painstaking detail, the factors that influence how a media event turns out. Everything in this story depends upon the media, and the fate of all its public figures is decided on the basis of how well they size up and play, from moment to moment, the public-relations game.
As the Royals frolic at Balmoral, they come across not just as overly detached and morally suspect but, above all, fatally uncomprehending of how quickly, in media time, their reputations are plummeting from admirable to despicable. While the Royals hide away their newspapers or turn off their TV sets, Blair and his team, by contrast, gobble up all clues to the “public’s mind”, and set about duly influencing it.
It is no accident that the drama of this film hinges on the writing and on-camera uttering of certain key words and phrases – “people’s Princess” for Blair, “as a Queen and a grandmother” for Elizabeth – or the staging of seemingly irrational spectacles, like the half-mast flag over Buckingham Palace, demanded by “the people”, to which the Royals reluctantly capitulate.
Ultimately, for all concerned, this is a story of spin, the control of public opinion not through spreading disinformation, but through setting a mood, the most winning emotion. And the sharpness of The Queen is in showing how rapidly and wildly such collective emotion can fluctuate – a large, abstract theme it makes concrete by expertly manipulating and shifting our own sympathies and antipathies all along the line.
© Adrian Martin October 2006