It is a complete mystery to me why Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep don't work more. They are easily the two best actresses working in film. I would think directors would be bending over backward for the opportunity to work with these two accomplished thespians. Instead, they are more easily able to get films with Kirsten Dunst and Julie Stiles made. Amazing. It just isn't the same, folks. It isn't the same.
"The Queen", the new film from director Stephen Frears ("Dirty, Pretty Things", "The Crying Game"), concentrates on the week after Princess Diana's death. As the film progresses, we watch Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren), Prince Phillip (James Cromwell) and Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) deal with the loss of someone in their lives as you would expect British Royalty to deal with such a thing, with a stiff upper lip. But this period is also significant in British history for another reason; a new Labour Prime Minister has just been elected. Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) recognizes Diana's death will not remain the isolated family affair the Royals insist it will be. Through many conversations, Blair attempts to get the Queen to make some sort of statement regarding her former step-daughter's death, to make some sign for the benefit of a grieving public. But as she and the family are spending the summer at their estate in Balmoral, Scotland, she remains steadfast in her feeling that this is a private family affair and any public grief will soon wear off.
"The Queen" is a remarkable film for two reasons; the first and foremost is Helen Mirren. She is, once again, superb. If she isn't at least nominated for an Oscar, there is something seriously wrong with the whole system.
There is some humor in the film, but it is derived from watching the rigid ceremony and outdated tradition surrounding the family. Mirren could easily have portrayed the role as a jokey, caricature of the Queen, but her performance is much better, much more layered than that. She successfully paints a portrait of the Queen, and what her life is as a Royal, making the character, both good and bad, seem real. As she portrays the monarch, we watch as she moves through a life surrounded by tradition, a cocoon of advisors and servants, buffering her from the public, further reinforcing her feelings everything is going well. Convinced she is right, she doesn't heed the advice of her new Prime Minister, a figure she clearly 'tolerates'. But as he continues to press the case, she gradually realizes he may be speaking the truth.
Mirren does a brilliant job of making us understand this woman's feelings. It seems perfectly understandable she would be so reluctant to believe the public does not require some statement from the Royal family, this is a private family affair and the British people are stalwart and dignified. As she gradually, very gradually, realizes perhaps she does need to address the public, this also makes sense. She remembers she is in the public eye, a spokesperson for the people, perhaps she should say something.
You have to remember Queen Elizabeth is part of a monarchy that has ruled England for centuries. There are traditions involved with the position and her life has been very different from a normal person. So, while her behavior may seem odd at first, we understand it through Mirren's performance. We certainly may not agree with it, but we see how it could happen. Throughout, there are many references to this, reminding us of the tradition the House of Windsor is steeped in.
Mirren is simply outstanding. Have I said that already?
The other person who is largely responsible for this film's success is director Stephen Frears. He keeps the film moving at a fast clip and the film is more entertaining for it. Usually, when you go to a biopic, you expect the film to reach the 2 hour plus mark. "The Queen" is a sprightly 95 minutes long. Because of this, Frears smartly concentrates on the week after Diana's death. He doesn't attempt to paint a complete picture of the monarch's life, choosing instead to illuminate this period. Because of this choice, we actually learn more about Queen Elizabeth and her family. The tragedy of Diana's death makes everything seem a little amplified, as though they are experiencing things they would normally experience over the course of a couple of years. Throughout, as we watch them deal with their traditions, and each other, we learn a lot about the traditions of their family, and the history.
Shortly after we meet the Queen and her new Prime Minister, the film abruptly shifts to the night of Diana's death. We watch as various images pop up, giving us an accurate feeling of what that night was like. Because Frears uses a quick series of images, we do some of the work, filling in the blanks with our imagination. It is an effective trick and works well to give us information and to keep the film moving along.
Throughout the film, the focus shifts back and forth from the Queen and the Windsors, to Blair, his staff and his wife. We quickly realize that Blair is trying to get through to the Queen for a number of reasons. The most important is that he genuinely feels the public needs to hear from her. But the political cache of getting the Queen to change her ways is not lost upon the young Labour official. When this eventually happens, a small smile crosses his lips. His wife is also incredulous about why he would care so much about the Queen. He notes that without her, he would not be possible, so it is in his best interest to help her maintain an air of dignity. I bring this up because it shows Frears is also interested in showing the politics of England at this time, and how all of these events affect one another.
"The Queen" is a great film, much more sprightly, interesting and human that the traditional biopic. Now it is up to you to discover what the thousands of people who have been packing the limited engagement theaters have already discovered.