Queen, The (United Kingdom/France/Italy, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With The Queen, Stephen Frears has at least two items on his agenda: to humanize the head of the British monarchy while at the same time indicating how far removed she has become from the concerns of her subjects. He also poses questions about the relevancy of the monarchy in today's society, but that's hardly a new issue and Frears doesn't press the matter. The Queen is an interesting character study. There's not much plot to speak of, but it gives actors (including a splendid Helen Mirren) an opportunity to shine.

I can't vouch for how much of "insider information" in The Queen is accurate, but there's a sense of verisimilitude about the proceedings. The majority of the storyline takes place during the first week of September 1997, in the period between the death of Princess Diana and her funeral. That was the time in which the outpouring of love and grief in England was met with stony silence from the Royal Family. And, as the Queen's popularity tumbled to an all-time low, the esteem of the new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, skyrocketed because of a memorable speech he made in which he declared that Diana was "the people's princess." The Queen takes viewers inside Buckingham Palace, Balmoral, and 10 Downing Street to provide insight into what may have transpired.

Mirren plays Queen Elizabeth II (her second time essaying a British monarch named "Elizabeth") with unvarying conviction. Through her portrayal, we see the Queen not as a lofty, detached icon but as a woman who is trapped by her situation. Mirren plays Her Majesty as someone who believes she is doing the right thing for her subjects even though she is so out of touch with their needs and desires that she no longer understands what that is. Her contempt for Diana - thinly veiled even when she agrees to make a speech honoring her former daughter-in-law - colors her judgment. Perhaps the scene that lingers the most is when Elizabeth, after wrecking a car trying to cross a river, sits placidly awaiting a rescue while a single tear runs down her cheek. At this point, one senses, she believes the world has passed her by.

Timing may be everything. As The Queen arrives in theaters, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is on his way out, and his popularity is at a low ebb. The movie tells of his early months in office, when his approval rating was through the roof. Blair, as portrayed by Michael Sheen, is full of energy and, at the outset, he is intimidated by the Queen. However, despite her assertion that she was brought up to keep her feelings inside, Blair sees through the icy exterior to the woman inside, and this encourages him to go to stand up for her. He not only defends her to the press, but gives her advice crucial to saving her from disgrace.

The most interesting aspect of The Queen is observing the gamesmanship that takes place behind the scenes. American politics are murky, but in the U.K., the existence of a monarch adds a further layer of complexity. As the Queen's popularity sinks, Blair's skyrockets. His colleagues celebrate this, but Blair is worried that the growing anger at Elizabeth threatens the monarchy. One poll claims 25% of the population believe it should be abolished.

Once again, director Stephen Frears confirms his versatility as a director. He has followed up a period piece full of nudity (Mrs. Henderson Presents) with a staid drama. The "action" in The Queen is about how the characters interact. This is an actors' piece. The script is lively and intelligent, with plenty of humor, but there's not a lot going on. In addition to Mirren and Sheen, there are parts for James Cromwell (as Prince Philip), Alex Jennings (as Prince Charles), Helen McCrory (as Blair's wife), and Sylvia Syms (as the Queen Mum). Diana plays herself via archival footage.

The greater the viewer's interest in "The Royals," the more he or she is likely to appreciate what The Queen has to offer. The film will inevitably have greater appeal in the United Kingdom, where the Queen is an integral part of life, than in the United States, where she is a distant (and somewhat curious) figurehead. Nevertheless, the movie is compelling enough to interest nearly anyone, even an anti-monarchist, and remind us that even the most glacial of icons contains a human heart.

Queen, The (United Kingdom/France/Italy, 2006)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2006-10-06
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1