One of the Greatest Performances in Screen History
"If you imagine I'm going to drop everything and come to London before I attend to my grandchildren who've just lost their mother, then you're mistaken." In The Queen (2006), that's what Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) tells prime minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) when Princess Diana is killed in an automobile accident. But Elizabeth's posture creates a political crisis in Britain, and according to the movie, it's Blair who plays a key role in getting the ship of state back on an even keel.
Helen Mirren gives one of the greatest performances in film history in The Queen. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and the movie was nominated for five additional Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Costuming and Best Original Score.
The Queen is a brilliant character study of an older woman struggling to deal with changing times. She desperately wants to protect the monarchy, which for her is not just an abstract idea — she is acutely aware her course of action will impact not only herself, but those in line to succeed to the throne, including her son and her grandsons.
A Monarch's Personal Feelings Clash With the National Mood
Much of the movie is set amid the rugged beauty of the Scottish Highlands, where the queen has an estate called Balmoral. In 1997 she goes there with others in the royal family, including her young grandsons, William and Harry, the sons of Princess Diana. While at Balmoral, the royals get shocking news: Diana and her lover were killed in a car crash in Paris. Elizabeth decides to hole up with her grandsons at Balmoral and protect the boys from the media madness, particularly the footage of their dead mother being shown on television.
The queen's approach is "restrained grief and sober private mourning." As far as she is concerned, this is proper because her son Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) and Diana got divorced, and therefore the princess was no longer a member of the royal family. But the film makes it clear that Elizabeth's judgment is clouded by the fact that she regards her ex-daughter-in-law as a thorn in her side.
However, the queen is drastically out of synch with the national mood. Diana was so beloved by the people that there is a massive outpouring of grief, and outrage quickly grows that the royals are making no public gesture of mourning. Elizabeth soon finds herself looking at newspaper headlines like: "Show us there's a heart in the House of Windsor."
An Exotic, Rarified World
One of the strengths of The Queen is that it creates a plausible fictional version of the world of the royal family. Elizabeth has been queen since the time of Winston Churchill, and she lives in a cocoon, especially up at Balmoral. The filmmakers and actors capture this so well they make us understand that Elizabeth is genuinely puzzled by the crisis she precipitates. Nevertheless, the queen recognizes that there is considerable sentiment in Britain for ending the monarchy. At one point, she laments to her mother (Sylvia Syms), "Something has happened. There's been a change. Some shift in values."
The filmmakers came up with an unforgettable sequence to show us when Elizabeth finally realizes what she's up against. The queen drives out into the countryside and happens upon a magnificent stag with 14-point antlers. She knows the area is full of hunters who want to kill the animal so they can mount his head on their wall, and her emotional response indicates that she grasps the parallel between the stag's circumstances and those of the monarchy. It's at that moment she senses the danger and begins to think in terms of survival.
The View From 10 Downing Street
In sharp contrast to the world of the royals, the film has us spend time with the newly elected Tony Blair and those surrounding him. Viewers who have seen a few episodes of the American TV show The West Wing should feel on familiar ground in this part of the movie.
In The Queen, the prime minister's entire staff and even his wife are anti-monarchy, but Blair himself feels strongly that allowing the queen to self-destruct would do his government more harm than good. Thus, he takes an active role in maneuvering a reluctant Elizabeth into meeting the demands of the British public. But Blair's wife thinks her husband has been seduced along the way, and she chides him, "At the end of the day, all Labour prime ministers go ga-ga for the queen."
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