Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) with Her Majesty (Mirren).
What you’ve heard about Helen Mirren’s performance is true. Perhaps it’s the Russian nobility on her father’s side emerging, but whatever the origins, Mirren has the goods to be The Queen. And this is her show, all the others merely players in her court. She is provided an excellent foil in Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), whose initiation as the boyish prime minister could not have been scripted any more perfectly to put Elizabeth II into sharp relief. Their shared scenes—his effusive pleas beside her quiet resolve, his populism next to her tradition—offer up tutorials in British history and royal protocol. Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan are sympathetic to Her Majesty. That much is very clear. They are not so soft on Princes Philip (James Cromwell) and Charles (Alex Jennings).
When Diana died in 1997, she was a rock star, adored by her fans, most of whom had not the faintest clue about how royalty works. That historical moment was nothing short of a clash of cultures, a collision of worlds. The Royal Family’s problem was that while they knew who they were and how to conduct themselves in accordance with tradition, they did not know that Diana’s legions were ignorant of the finer points of decorum. It was a fracture heard ‘round the world. The debacle of the flag is the perfect case in point: the crowds demand the flag be flown at half staff, which bewilders the Royals, who know that when the monarch is not in residence, the Royal Standard is not flown over Buckingham Palace. It is a simple rule of flag protocol. It was not designed to slight Diana, but the masses neither knew nor cared.
This sequence demonstrates a disconnect between queen and subjects that had been developing over time but which comes on Her Royal Highness [let’s spell this out] with a shocking suddenness. She is a woman acutely aware of her duty and only ever acts publicly with reason and calm. But passion and emotion were pouring into the streets from the moment of Diana’s death. If Frears and Morgan were making a Western, we would be hearing a bugle in the distance, as the cavalry gallops to Elizabeth’s aid. Instead, Tony Blair, perhaps too easily and eagerly, is practically converted into a monarchist. He willingly offers himself up as mediator between queen and people, in spite of the flippant derision of his wife, Cheri (Helen McCrory). The transformation does seem to be a bit speedy, given that Blair is something of a socialist. What Frears and Morgan want us to consider is that if each of us could have more intimate exposure to the queen, perhaps we would not judge her so harshly. Blair is our access to the queen.
Philip and Charles do not fare half so well. I suspect this is partly because Frears and Morgan are not particularly concerned with them and partly because they are well aware that Diana’s devotees are always simmering and alert for any mention of their goddess’s former husband—in their minds, the man who deprived Diana of a crown. The result is a hand-wringing, simpering Prince of Wales, a man afraid of his mother. It is a bad call, and one that does some disservice to the Elizabeth this movie wants us to respect. Jennings’ Charles appears as though he fears his mother may strike him every time he comes within arm’s reach. The groveling, sniveling effect is tempered somewhat by showing Charles to have a better sense than his mother of how best to acknowledge the people’s grief and to have a tender touch with his and Diana’s sons.
Helen Mirren has the goods to be the queen – all the others merely players in her court.
The film makes the very wise decision not to spend any time at all on the children. They are never shown full face, because the story of two little princes whose mother has died may easily become the stuff of fairy tales. More than a glimpse of their profiles by lamplight, and the story is hijacked. Frears and Morgan resist any temptation to milk that rich evocative material, knowing that audiences might have an emotional response against the so-called enemy of the piece—their protagonist. Instead, a plausible case is made that the Windsors are trying to protect the boys from media scrutiny. What these boys need is a good stomp around the countryside, according to their grandfather. Unfortunately, the screenplay misinterprets Prince Philip somewhat. His public outspokenness is legendary. There is even a book of collected quotations. While James Cromwell’s Philip is unbelievably obtuse, apparently altogether unaware of people’s feelings, the more accurate reading likely is that he is very well aware and just plain doesn’t care.
Ultimately, the senior princes don’t matter to this movie very much. The one who matters is Elizabeth. When she was ten years old, her father suddenly became the King of England, when his brother abdicated the throne. We all know the story. But think of its impact on this little girl, who just as suddenly became the heir to the throne. She was thrust into a circumstance that none of her family had anticipated, and she embraced the responsibility with a maturity beyond her years. When she was fourteen, she publicly pledged herself to her people, to serve them all her life, however long or short it might be. Imagine, then, the sting to her heart, as she read the venomous remarks attached to some of the bouquets outside Buckingham Palace. Mirren’s face responds as though that fourteen-year-old girl has been slapped across the face. It is one of the movie’s strongest moments.
The finest moment, however, is when Elizabeth is stranded at a river crossing in the Scottish wilds around Balmoral. The highlands are used to magnificent effect here, showing the queen alone and isolated in this harsh and demanding landscape. The metaphor is clear. And the scene is breathtaking enough that it is possible to forgive the filmmakers for getting a little heavy handed with their metaphor, stretching it as they do to include an imperial stag, so called because its antlers have fourteen points. Clearly, the deer is monarch of the hills. When the deer is shot, Elizabeth goes to see the remains as though she is paying respects to a fellow royal. She, also feeling hunted, sees the bullet hole and says she hopes the deer didn’t suffer.
Identifying with the stag, Elizabeth understands that she is cornered, that she has to make a move, and she does. Her duty is to her subjects, and they need to see a response. For their sake, she adapts. She removes the family to London, she shows her face, and she shows that she cares, as they have demanded she do. The pleasure of this movie is in watching Helen Mirren’s movement and expression and hearing her speech. Her carriage is as studied as a queen’s, her bearing believably regal, her face allows a wonderful play of varied emotion and thought processes, and her voice is precisely modulated at all times. This movie rises or falls with the casting of Her Majesty, and happily, it’s all rise because of Dame Helen.