The Queen

The DVD just arrived in the mail and I decided to stop what I was working on and watch it. I’m glad I saw it at home rather than in a theatre because I wouldn’t want to take a chance on sitting with strangers and irritating them with my weepiness.

It’s rare to see a character study so deftly written and performed in a mere 98 minutes and yet feel as though I now know a little of this royal family.

Helen Mirren, whom I came to revere as an actress when she performed the title role in “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” by Tennessee Williams, after it had been performed by the great Vivien Leigh; she was just as good and a bit sexier. Hard to imagine, I know, but trust me on that.

Now I am seeing Mirren portray the Queen of England, a woman so steeped in history for so long that one can hardly recall the world without her in it. But the real Queen is almost mythical in that not a great many people know her, or know anyone who does. About the only personal thing I knew about her was her love of horses and dogs. Mirren fills in all the gaps with her nuanced performance and restraint of emotion. One can better understand how immensely difficult it must be to live the life of a royal, and how anguishing it must have been for the vivacious Diana living under those circumstances.

The film takes us from the death of Diana, using actual television news coverage as well as perfect fakery, in flashbacks, to two months after her funeral. It is the story of what likely happened in the interim.

I don’t think there can be any spoilers in this story, since just about everyone knows the story, and world newspapers’ criticism of the monarchy for not showing emotion and sympathy over Diana’s death. No understanding was offered about the Queen’s position on the terrible accident that took Diana’s life in a Paris tunnel in 1997. We only knew it took the Queen seemingly forever to get out there among her people.

This film brilliantly uses conversation to touch on the Queen’s upbringing: how she saw her father become elevated into a position for which he was unprepared (when his elder brother abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson), how all in life was Duty Before Self, and how she learned to stifle her feelings and show her people only a dignified and regal presence.

How did her people modernize themselves in attitude, without her knowledge? It seems time passed her by, living a cloistered life in Buckingham Palace and Balmoral, and she truly had no idea of how much love the entire world had for her former daughter-in-law, the late Diana, ex-Princess of Wales. She gave polite but short shrift to those who tried to warn her that ignoring the grief of her people could have disastrous results for the monarchy. The feeling of the royals was that the people worldwide knew only one Diana, but not the “other” Diana, the one who seemed to have given royal headaches for the length of her marriage to Prince Charles. It seemed impossible for Britain’s new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to bridge the gap between the Monarchy and modernity, but he tried, oh how he tried.

Tony Blair is brightly portrayed by Michael Sheen, and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and husband of the Queen, is dispassionately played by James Cromwell.

Feelings about this much-loved Queen are reminiscent of those the kingdom had for her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, at whose funeral a subject was heard to shout at the passing coffin, “Good job, old girl.”

Queen Elizabeth manages to transcend her own history, her perhaps-misguided sense of what is right in today’s world, and her personal feelings about Diana, and capitulates gracefully, albeit somewhat tardily, to the advice of her Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

One scene in particular is very moving: When the Queen at last stands with her subjects at the gates of the Palace looking at the thousands of flowers placed there by loving fans of Diana, and reads the cards denouncing the royal family for their treatment of Diana, Mirren conveys both the Queen’s enormous self-discipline, and her abject pain at learning the truth. It is amazing, first-rate acting.

Supporting roles were well-played by all, especially Sylvia Syms (Queen Mother), Alex Jennings (Prince Charles), and Roger Allam (Robin Janvrin).

Music by Alexandre Desplat is superbly low-key, just enough to carry the film’s meaning through every scene without emotionalizing it.

Mirren may have been given the honor of the title, Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2003 (an honor she had previously declined in 1996), but, in this film, she is Queen.

DVD extra features include background on making the film, and exceedingly informative interviews with all the stars, particularly Mirren’s. The star describes in detail how she found the character of the Queen, in order to portray her accurately.

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