Early on in Stephen Frear’s absorbing drama The Queen, Tony Blair – having secured the premiership of the nation – arrives at Buckingham Palace so that the Queen can ask him to form a government. He is breathlessly informed about myriad protocols involving how to present himself before royalty. There is a palpable stiffness in the air. The Queen dismissively notes his lack of understanding of tradition and leaves abruptly once the basics have been dispensed with. It’s a key scene – one that establishes the background of these two key characters – that underscores the very scene with which the movie ends.
The tragedy at the center
Contrary to its branding in some parts of the media as a biopic, The Queen is primarily about the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II, Tony Blair and the people of a nation plunged into stunned sorrow following the untimely death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
The Queen is at her summer retreat in Balmoral when the tragedy occurs. Blair has occupied 10 Downing Street for mere weeks. Elizabeth decides to stoically deal with the tragedy – “with dignity” as she calls it, falling back on traditional protocol – which given Diana’s lack of official status requires her to do nothing. Blair on the other hand shows how astutely he has a finger on the pulse of the nation by instantly issuing a statement of solidarity in which he calls Diana “the people’s princess”. Blair endears himself to the nation. The Queen’s festering reputation as a cold-hearted monarch begins to gain wide spread support.
Mirren's memorable performance
As has been well documented Helen Mirren turns in a terrific performance that goes beyond mere uncanny physical imitation. In the scenes immediately following Diana’s demise, she portrays a variety of emotions – concern for her bereaved grandchildren, long standing resentment of Diana, guilt at harboring that resentment and envy at the outpouring of emotions for the people’s princess.
Her best scene comes later in the movie when she finally relents to Blair’s coaxing to come out and see the flowers laid out outside Buckingham by Diana’s mourners. There are notes that glorify Diana and clearly spell out dislike for the royals – and this stings her to tears. Mirren mines the betrayal that overwhelms her with a stillness that conveys disbelief then a bewildered acceptance.
The Immediacy of Live footage
As Tony Blair, Michael Sheen oozes the early charm and promise that gave hope to his nation. The set designs in his scenes, at home and in 10 Downing, convey an informality that contrasts with the regal backdrops that Mirren operates in. Director Frear periodically inserts real TV footage from events between the scenes – infusing an authenticity in the movie.
The rest of the cast are given episodic scenes to propel the story forward. The entire movie feels a little staged and “acted in” rather than organic. James Cromwell plays Prince Phillip as a one-dimensional, rather thoughtless, alpha male who has been stripped of any real power. Alex Jennings’ Prince Charles is written in as a waffling, confused monarch in the making. Helen McRory’s Cherie Blair has a good clutch of scenes but is primarily used to inform us of the newer generations’ dislike for the royals.
Alls well that didn't end well
The last scene in the Queen contrasts the early relationship between her and Blair. It’s time for a status report from the Prime Minister and the Queen opts for a walk through the garden instead of sitting stiffly in one of her meeting rooms. After the staggering emotional drain imposed by Diana’s funeral on the British people, it evokes a time of hope of what might have been before the real Blair – perhaps explicably but without gumption – decided to hitch his star to America’s wobbling destiny.