Movie-Hype00693 THE QUEEN
Oscar Nominations for: Best Picture, Best Director (Stephen Frears), Best Actress (Helen Mirren), Best Original Screenplay (Peter Morgan), Best Original Score, Best Costume Design
It's been beyond tough this time around to see Oscar-nominated films like I usually do, so when the opportunity came up to see THE QUEEN, I felt I had to jump at it, and I use that term figuratively, as I was barely limping even with the aid of a cane. Nonetheless, I managed to get there and see it.
THE QUEEN is about the current monarch Queen Elizabeth II, specifically the week after Princess Diana's death leading up to her funeral. At this point in the review I feel compelled to come clean about my thoughts on Diana:
I never followed her life in any detail other than what was inescapable from the saturation of modern media. At the time she died her death meant absolutely nothing to me, and I don't mean that in a harsh way, but simply in the manner of how the 46 people who died while you read this last sentence didn't affect you either. I avoided the news crush after she died, but I did watch Diana's funeral, if only because I sensed it was one of those weird moments like the Challenger Explosion and O.J.'s Bronco chase where twenty years from now I will want to be able to say I was there.
The reason Diana's funeral became a Must-Watch cultural phenomenon lay borne in how people reacted to her, and how that interest became a Critical Mass after her death. Actually this very phenomenon is fascinating in an anthropological sense, and I wouldn't mind watching a well-made documentary about it. THE QUEEN does not go there. Diana is not in the movie, other than a few media clips, and remains as big a mystery as she ever was.
In one sense, the film is not about her at all. In another sense, the film is completely about her. Or maybe it's about what she represents. More on that at the end.
To clear up: here's what we have going: Diana dies. Queen Elizabeth, perhaps for personal reasons but definitely for protocol ones, feels that the Royal family should stay silent after Diana's death. This includes no Royal announcement from Elizabeth or Prince Charles, no state funeral, and definitely no "symbols" such as flying the flag at Buckingham palace at half-mast.
On the other side is the brand new Prime Minister Tony Blair, swept in like a tidal wave on Populist support, determined to be the "People's Leader," to the extent of asking people to call him "Tony." Blair recognizes the mood of the people in London: the mass grief the slowly turns to outrage over the silence of the Queen. Blair sort of goes toe to toe with Elizabeth to get her to back away from principle and react to her people. If you don't remember what actually happened I will leave the ending a surprise.
Ugh. I just re-read the last two paragraphs, and maybe it's my bad writing, but based on that, why would anyone want to see the film? It sounds so boring. In fact, I only leave in my awful prose (maybe I can get you to buy that I did it on purpose?) to juxtapose this paradox: while the film may sound stuffy and dreadfully dreary, it is anything but. As to why you would want to see it, there are several reasons:
First, THE QUEEN was nominated for six Academy Awards. No matter what your feeling on the Oscars, I think you have to agree that they generally don't nominate a terrible movie for six different awards, including four of the top five. Of course, sometimes Oscar nominates boring films, but not here. As I said earlier I have not seen many of the nominations yet and likely won't, but I have been covering these awards for quite a few years, and usually make it my business to see every single nominated film. I think I have a pretty good judgment of the kinds of films worthy of nomination, and THE QUEEN fits that bill. I see THE QUEEN as the caliber of movie that would get nominated, but probably not win. Does that make sense? Because it is only about one week in the life of people, and there is no sex or violence, THE QUEEN is not the kind of picture that wins all the awards, but it's good enough to sit on the platform.
From the very beginning we get a sense that this film will not be stuffy in the least. The opening title of "THE QUEEN" appears next to Helen Mirren sitting in full royal pose, and she deliberately turns her head and glares severely at the camera. It's a funny moment, and a tip off to the different tack director Stephen Frears is going to take.
Speaking of Frears, long-time readers know my most hammered rule when it comes to movies: of all the reasons to see a film (genre, stars, etc.), by far the two most important are the script and the director. An actor can only ruin a film, not make it good. The quality of any movie starts with the script and ends with who's shooting and putting together the film.
Frears is one of those directors who is hard to get a handle on. Two of his most well-known films are DANGERIOUS LIASONS and HIGH FIDELITY. Can you think of two more disparate times at the theatre? Less known but perhaps my favorite of Frears's was his 2003 gem DIRTY LITTLE THINGS, which I reviewed a few years ago, and is well worth a look.
In THE QUEEN Frears reinvents himself again. At times it's like a documentary, at times a farce and at times a tragedy. Sometimes I even feel like I'm watching an Agatha Christie play. All I can say is that Frears does a masterful job at taking a very small story and making it feel necessary and dramatic. He doesn't try to do more than tell the small story, the contest of wills, if you will, and I think that's what makes the film so successful. To be sure there are big implications that come from THE QUEEN, which I will get to, but I think when a film maker lays those out for you it's less powerful than when he lets the work speak for itself. The camera is never obtrusive or voyeuristic, but neither is it cold or seek to create sympathy. It's there, we watch, and again, he lets the movie speak for itself.
I don't know much about the scriptwriter Peter Morgan, other than he also penned THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND. Any time you write two movies in one year that are virtual locks to win two of the five biggest Oscars (Best Actress and Best Actor), you must be doing something right.
A note on the accuracy of the script. While you are watching THE QUEEN, you totally forget that much of this must be speculation. After all, it's not like Queen Elizabeth watched the dailies and sent back notes, right? The Royal Family are among the most photographed people on the planet, yet we know very little about them. Yet with THE QUEEN, I never had a moment's doubt that this was how it was. That's a powerful script. The cheicking I could do on Morgan indicates that he did exhaustive research and interviews with as many people as he could, which is borne out in the seamlesness of the story. I have no idea if everything (or almost everything) we see is what actually happened, but in another way I have no doubt that it is the "truth." Does that make sense?
The next reason to see THE QUEEN is for the actors. Helen Mirren has long been one of my favorites. I'd call her one of "my boys," that collective of people who are fabulous and do not get the attention they deserve, but that seems silly for a woman who just garnered her third Oscar Nomination. Yet despite that Helen Mirren is underrated. She's as good as Meryl Streep or Judi Dench or any of the other dames of modern movies, but doesn't usually enter that "household name" status. She should. Mirren is considered a mortal lock for this award, and it might well be a make-up for all the quality work of her career, but for all that her performance as Elizabeth is Oscar-worthy. She manages to give Elizabeth the layers and layers of tradition a woman like that would have without ever becoming wooden or falling into stereotype. It really is a remarkable performance.
No one else was nominated, but they sure could have been. Michael Sheen is Tony Blair, a performance so spot-on with what we see of Blair on the news that at times you wonder if it might actually be Blair. I was enormously impressed with this man, enough to wonder if he might be Martin Sheen's true son. James Cromwell is perfect as Prince Phillip (Elizabeth's husband). Cromwell might be the only actor you recognize, although most people don't know his name. Cromwell has always been a "oh, he's that guy from _____" kind of actor. Many might have said "Oh, he's that guy from BABE," while I myself usually think of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL first, because of how much I love that movie. Others might even harkens back to CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, and now a new generation will simply call him Jack Bauer's dad. Whatever you call him, the dude is awesome.
All the Royals are out of touch with reality, but Phillip seems the most so. He worries more about the tea getting cold than what might be going on in London. Yet, I didn't find him a caricature, but rather someone sticking up for his wife. Only James Cromwell could pull that off. The dude playing Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) does not look a whole lot like Charles, but after five minutes you forget that and his performance is flawless as well. Actually everyone is awesome. Part of the reason I have no problem believing this story is absolutely real (regardless of how much of it is factual) is because of the command performances of all involved.
This brings us to the last reason to see THE QUEEN: the bigger picture. In the movie we see Elizabeth as iron-willed as ever. We don't really get into the personality conflicts Diana had with these people, but it's well known. (And, a refreshing change that we get both sides, in hints and such, that these people weren't all to blame and Diana the perfect princess. I have no doubt the woman was as difficult to live with as Charles was.)
For all that though, I am positive that Elizabeth's initial reaction to say nothing was about propriety and protocol and not personal feelings. As Diana was no longer a member of the Royal Family a public announcement is inappropriate, at least as far as she thinks. (For example, when the newspapers begin to demand the flag be flown at half-mast, it's pointed out that they didn't do that when Elizabeth's father, the KING, died. You can imagine the reluctance to do so for a woman no longer in the family.) It's easy to dismiss that view, until you see how Elizabeth's life was shaped. WWII broke out when she was 13, and Elizabeth took over monarch duties not long after that. The first Prime Minister she dealt with was Winston Churchill. (At one point Elizabeth points out to the new Blair that she has been ruling through ten Prime Ministers. That's just incredible, if you think about it.)
As far as these people living in a bubble, can you blame them? It's not like they can go out and be regular citizens. The British public is obsessed with them, which forces seclusion behind the gates and towers. Many people point out that the monarch no longer serves much purpose, which may be true, but can you imagine living your whole life in castles where everyone bows to you? (In fact in the presence of the Queen you cannot even show her your back.) I'm not making excuses for these people, but I'm saying that I don't think many of us would keep our common touch living in such strange circumstances for that long.
Anyway, Elizabeth has this view of what is right and wrong, backed by tradition, protocol, and duty. It shapes everything she does. In a manner of speaking she may even be right. But Blair, new to government, new to leadership, definitely has his pulse more on the people. He sees hundreds of thousands come to the Palace, grieving far beyond what would be normal for the death of a beloved figure. He sees correctly that protocol may not withstand the tidal wave that seems to be happening.
During the movie both Blair and the Queen continually read all the papers. I found this fascinating, for they seem to take their cues from what the papers call for. The press in England is much different than here. Think the National Enquirer cross bred with the New York Times and a pit bull, and you get the idea. I found it fascinating how powerful the press was, and how everyone seemed to take it very seriously that what the press called for was real and not just the rantings of a few in the Editor's Box.
More than that, you see how sometimes what is "right" is eclipsed by what is necessary. Elizabeth may have been right in standing on tradition, but Blair realizes that things have gotten so out of hand that something needs to be done anyway. No matter what the tradition, no matter what the protocol, the people of Britain wanted, then needed, then demanded that their Queen speak to them, console them in their grief. Big deal, you say. Ignore them. They'll go away. Yet in countries like England; heck--in England itself, this is how monarchies are overtopped. People get emotional. It feeds on the emotion of those around them, comes back redoubled, sent out again. What was sadness becomes rage, and the world splits apart.
In the case of Diana I am not sure why things that way. My guess is that not only were people sad, but they felt guilty. The obsession with Diana in Britain was epic. It even reached over here. (I think Diana has been on the cover of People Magazine more than anyone else. Think about how weird that is.)
Everywhere she went she was hounded. In those last few months Diana was hit hard for her relationship with Dodi Fayed, a man who English people do not consider white. This is a big deal over there, and more than a few coughs might have sounded like "whore," if you know what I mean.
Taking it a step further, when Diana died I think people not only felt guilty that they'd been so hard on her recently, but felt responsible too. After all, the paparazzi are only that vicious and swarming because of the high price they get for their pictures, right? And they only get that money because of the demand for them in newspapers. And who reads those newspapers? The public. In a way, it was the British people who killed Diana as much as the confluence of events that came together to end her life.
In a situation like that, you can see how grief can turn ugly. We've seen this before in other situations. I actually wanted to write a whole section about this here, but it gets into social policy rather than the movie, so I'll save that for another time. Suffice it to say the phenomenon is absolutely fascinating, and more than a little scary.
So where were we? Oh, yeah: the movie. THE QUEEN doesn't try to tackle all those issues. They are there for anyone who wants to think about them, but also there is just a story. Should you watch it? I say yes, if you enjoy good movies. Whether or not you care a fig for Diana THE QUEEN is endlessly watchable. The performances, the story, the filmmaking: all of it come together for a quiet little masterpiece. Well recommended.