A movie in which few actual events happen and based on characters that most people discount as obsolete: this is what Frears shapes into a vehicle most critics tout as on par with his previous Dangerous Liaisons. Since that latter film from nearly two decades ago, Frears has met acclaim most notably for High Fidelity. With The Queen, Frears returns to his portrait of British high society, this time upgrading to the monarchy over aristocracy. Perhaps the most merited aspect of both Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen is the objective lens under which Frears places his rather unlikable subjects. Never throughout the film do we get the sense that Frears is passing judgment on the subject of his portrait because to do so would be to obscure the chance to penetrate the steely façade of the ancient British institution and the woman currently commandeering the tight ship. Instead, Frears takes the facts that transpired after the death of Princess Diana, places her majesty in the tumult of national tragedy, and lets imaginative character work do the rest. When put in the position of confronting the hunted stag of Balmoral, for example, Queen Elizabeth II (Mirren) transforms from an exoskeletal leader to a woman of several nuances. The film opens quite predictably with the comedy of mannerisms which can be expected when an outsider such as Blair (Sheen) is invited into Buckingham Palace. The film quickly follows into the fated events of August 31, 1997, which did seem to be the weakest point of the film as Frears blends actual footage from Diana’s death with the reactions of Blair and the Queen and their respective cohorts of advisors, analysts, and speechwriters. The entire sequence felt as sensational as the tabloid coverage from ten years ago, which may have been Frears’ goal, but ended up feeling conspicuously out of place with the mature, introspective tone of the remainder of the film.
What followed, however, was an excellent study of an outdated figurehead completely out of touch with the people she was to be “leading.” So deft was the character development of Queen Elizabeth II that a sparse plotline managed to evoke themes of not only modernity v. tradition, but also popularity v. class, expectations v. actions (and the inevitable criticisms thereof), and most importantly the distinction between public and private. On a hillside at her Balmoral estate, the Queen encounters the abovementioned stag, which embodies several of these dichotomies at once. With a crown of antlers held high, the stag deigns to no one, but it seems that it no longer exists for any utility other than its impending demise. It is a life that neither the stag nor the Queen requested, but one for which they must accept their fated ends.
A young Tony Blair plays foil to Queen Elizabeth as he is the public, popular “people’s princess”-peddling politician who allows us to view the Queen from an initially naïve viewpoint. If one were to find a major flaw with any aspect of this film, though, it would have to be Blair’s characterization as he transforms from the harbinger of public sentiment to an advocate for the Queen practically overnight. Surely, the transformation happened somewhere during Blair’s tenure as the Prime Minister elected in 1997 is hardly recognizable from the Prime Minister governing England today. However, to say that the switch from public advocate to political lackey (either to the Queen or the U.S. President) happened due to a series of phone conversations during the week after Princess Diana’s death is a hyperbole.
Still, Frears’ accomplishment is large in that he takes an institution no one cares about or at the very best values only for its liability to mockery and for two hours makes us believe that we should care. He had help from his screenwriter, Peter Morgan, and his two principal actors, Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen. Mirren’s performance has been lauded in every review and by every awards group, so I will refrain from bestowing further adulations. However, Sheen’s performance is also noteworthy for showing the range of wide-eyed optimism to jaded calculation. With these components, but mostly because Frears could make them all work together, the film acts as a testament to the proposal that anything can be humanized, even the most remote, the most mundane, and the most stoic of characters.