A fascinating battle between archaic monarchal standards and modernistic tendencies, The Queen illustrates the fascinating hierarchal split in Britain following Princess Diana’s death in 1997 with an even hand and flawless pacing. In fact, The Queen exhibits perhaps the rarest trait in today’s cinema—it tells its tale with richness and layers in just under 95 minutes. Director Stephen Frears’ best move lies in his portrayals of the Queen herself (a marvelous Helen Mirren) and newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen)—rather than depict Blair as merely a sniveling simp and the Queen as an unequivocally stodgy, cold bitch, Frears makes sure that their humanism pokes its head out from their respective viewpoints…on occasion at least. Blair comes across as an awkward, bumbling buffoon during his first meeting with the Queen, but gradually builds confidence that his viewpoints are what England really wants to see as the film progresses. But as The Queen winds down, we see that while Blair holds the trust of the people is his hands, he refuses to wield it like a mace (much to the dismay of his power-hungry wife, the only participant in the film to come close to becoming a caricature). Instead, he gradually builds up the courage to speak his convictions truthfully: after a fairly weak statement of support for the royal family (which still qualifies as a step forward for Blair), he manages to convince the Queen to do what her nation is clamoring for—a trip to Buckingham Palace and a visit with her people at a time of mourning. That Blair is able to induce the queen to break one of her age-old traditions speaks volumes about how much has changed since his clumsy bow during his introduction to the Queen. In fact, it’s remarkable that the entire picture takes place in the span of just one week.
Exuding dignity with each creaky proclamation, Mirren probably has the Oscar locked up (normally meaningless, but for once, deserved). In fact, she’s so good that it took me half the movie to really understand how difficult her performance was. Queen Elizabeth II was mostly reviled, and Mirren manages to generate empathy from the audience without compromising what made the Queen disliked in the first place. She’s surrounded by people stuck in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s—her husband Prince Philip contemptuously spits at news reports of England’s unrest, and her mother held and still holds the same defiant resolve of her successor—and, holed up in her estate in Scotland, has no true understanding of what her people desire out of their leader(s). All she sees is what she thinks people should desire, and that’s simply not enough (of course, she’s a monarch in an era of predominantly democracy, so she’s already fighting an uphill battle). In fact, one of The Queen’s most poignant scenes involves the Queen—finally beginning to question her stubbornness in refusing to head to London—walking with her mother through the gardens, discussing what she should do. It seems apparent that the Queen wants to hear her mother—her inspiration, the woman from whom she learned everything about her position—tell her to go, tell her it’s time to buck the old customs and do what her people want. Instead, the Queen listens to a lecture about sticking to her guns. Like Blair—whose wife and advisers are all screaming for him to stomp on the Queen’s reign while she’s teetering—the Queen has a support group around her that’s entirely opposed to finding any sort of middle ground (with Charles being the notable exception). And like Blair, she eventually does what she feel she has to, even if it goes against everything she’s stood for and preached over her lifetime.
Led by Mirren, the performances are universally outstanding—particularly Sheen’s work as Blair and James Cromwell as the bitter Philip—and Peter Morgan’s script consistently mixes subtlety and biting with perfect timing. It’s Frears, though, who has a chance to be lost in all the hoopla of Mirren’s dazzling turn: he commands The Queen with a confidence in his viewers that’s refreshing, and manages to evoke compassion, anger, and thought without stretching his work out for kicks & giggles. Certainly one of the best 2006 has offered to date, The Queen offers the complete package: resonance, emotional heft, and strong filmmaking across the board. It’s the first true must-see of the year.